The trumpeter Tom Harrell has been doing this a long time, through various schools and vogues: He can play slow and fast and in between, sometimes all within a single line. But his improvising is always temperate and proportionate. He keeps you on the hook, but doesn’t shout, doesn’t stop the clock. Plenty of improvisers are specialists in now-ness, revealing a solo as a series of events, or present-tense flashes. With Mr. Harrell, it’s all one event. He’s always processing ahead and behind, and you feel as if you’re hearing the whole of the narrative at all times, from was to is to will be.
Mr. Harrell, now 68, has been one of the best composers, improvisers and bandleaders in jazz since the late ’80s, and he knows how to make contrasts sound exciting: playing slowly over a fast tempo, playing quietly but with power. But he also uses the contrast of his own sound set against that of the groups he’s playing in.
Catching Tom Harrell in person, you suspect that you are in the presence of someone being redeemed by music. Some sort of state of grace.
Of course every serious musician is in a sense being redeemed by it, but you cannot begin to understand either this man or his clear take on improvisation without knowing that, on top of being a resourceful trumpeter who rarely plays a cliché or repeats an idea, Harrell is a clinically diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic.
When he puts his horn to his lips he is the way normal ought to be, but he shuffles to and from the bandstand like a question mark. Between solos, his head bends down at right angles, eyes on the floor, arms dangling, not a twitch; an immobility way beyond concentration. The word “catatonic” crosses your mind. He credits the tunes and musicians on- mike in a scratchy, spaced-out drone. People who do not understand ask if he is strung out, a question which lost him work before he became such an accepted fixture.
Like Chet Baker, Stan Getz, the pianist Bill Evans, Django Reinhardt and very few others, Tom Harrell is a color-neutral white jazzman. Recording recently with some of the finest black trumpet players of the day, according to the producer, “they all deferred to him.” Alto whiz Phil Woods, with whom he worked for years, calls him “the finest jazz improviser today.”
His muscular, courageous and lucid playing is in dramatic contrast to his fragile persona. When he says “I want to put myself on the edge,” you wonder just where that might be because he is already further out than most of us can imagine. One thing his musical and verbal personalities have in common is a sly, ironic sense of humor. Folklore has it that one time, checking into a two-room hotel suite, he said: “Gee. This is great. One for each of my personalities.”
The trumpeter Tom Harrell favors a precise but shadowy sort of post-bop, sonorous and warm and alert. The lack of declarative drama in his style means he’s easy to take for granted, though he keeps putting out unstintingly fine albums. “Number Five” (High Note) is his latest, arriving without any overriding theme. It’s a bulletin reaffirming the lean enlightenment of his working quintet and its component parts. The opener is a sparring horn-and-drums reduction of the bebop standard “Blue ’n’ Boogie,” and later there are tunes arranged for trio or quartet. Mr. Harrell is 65, and his younger associates — the tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, the pianist Danny Grissett, the bassist Ugonna Okegwo and the drummer Johnathan Blake — can come across as apprentices filling in his compositions, which often hinge on a fragment of melody. The quintet will appear on June 29 and 30 at Smoke (smokejazz.com), as part of the club’s monthlong tribute to Miles Davis.
Peter Watrous, 1989:
The trumpeter Tom Harrell’s first set at the Village Vanguard on Wednesday night began in earnest halfway through. With Joe Lovano on soprano saxophone and Mr. Harrell on fluegelhorn, the band picked up some speed and finally began playing as an ensemble. Using arrangements by Mr. Harrell – he makes careful use of repeating patterns for the rhythm section – the band began abstracting the basic material of the tunes, using it as fuel for improvisation.
From that point on, the quintet (the other members were James Williams on piano, Ray Drummond on bass and Keith Copeland on drums) worked their way through harmonically sophisticated tunes by Mr. Harrell that drew on the sleek writing from the 1960’s of such composers as Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. Mr. Harrell has a wistful streak, and his tunes mined a late-evening melancholy. Using repeated, symmetrical melodies, his pieces conveyed a sense of abstracted gentleness that at its best seemed emotional and otherwise seemed merely pretty.
As an improviser, Mr. Harrell also drew his inspiration from the 1960s; his solos veered from mathematically derived patterns leading to dissonance through blues phrases and on to ripened long tones that filled the room. Mr. Harrell articulated his notes, and whiplash lines appeared -perfectly formed black scrawls against a white background.