41 Trumpet Master Tom Harrell – Mainstream Melodocist

Tom Harrell

Tom Harrell has been an active musician for over 50 years. After stints with a wide range of prominent bands including those of Horace Silver, Lee Konitz and George Russell, he came to maturity with the Phil Woods Quintet from 1983 – 1989. For the past three decades he has released a series of discs on roughly an annual basis that are consistently well-received. In 2018 he was the Jazz Journalists Association Trumpeter of the Year. In this next hour of Jazz at 100 Today!, we will begin our series on trumpet masters with Tom Harrell.

In 2006, Harrell formed a quintet with Wayne Escoffery on tenor, Danny Grissett on piano, Ugonna Okegwo on bass, and Johnathan Blake on drums. This durable unit recorded together until 2011, releasing five discs on HighNote. Of the third disc, 2010’s Roman Nights, John Kelman wrote on AllAboutJazz, “There’s plenty that resonates [here], where the one thing that is certain is that the chemistry amongst the members of Harrell’s quintet continues to refine and grow even more empathic with each passing year. The short but completely to the point solos on the aptly titled opener, Storm Approaching, not only demonstrate the exhilarating interplay between accompanists and soloists, but amongst the accompanists themselves, as drummer Johnathan Blake, in particular, accomplishes the remarkably multi-tasked challenge of responding simultaneously to both pianist Danny Grissett and Wayne Escoffery, during the saxophonist’s fiery solo.”

In 2011, Harrell, then 65, released In the Time of the Sun with the quintet. Kelman writes, “Harrell’s playing isn’t the only thing that’s great about [the disc], another set of exciting and thoroughly contemporary original compositions. Harrell’s music may occupy the … modern mainstream … but, teamed with a quartet of thirty-something players possessing remarkable malleability and simpatico—and despite the orthodoxy of its tried-and-true trumpet, sax, piano, bass and drums lineup—the emphasis is absolutely on modern. That much of the material has been in the group’s repertoire throughout its five-year existence speaks to an ability to hone it to its finest without losing the inspirational energy that, for many, comes early in the game when a song is at its freshest; Harrell’s group plays all nine tunes as if it were the first time…and the last.”

The final recording for the quintet, titled Number Five, came in 2012. In a departure, only four of the tracks included the full quintet. The beautiful tune, The Question, comes from the trumpet – tenor – keyboard trio of Harrell, Escoffery and Grissett.

Approaching. Tom Harrell Quintet
(Tom Harrell-tp/flh, Wayne Escoffery-ts, Danny Grissett-p, Ugonna Okegwo-b, Johnathan Blake-d). From Roman Nights. HighNote. 2010.
Estuary. Tom Harrell Quintet
(Tom Harrell-tp/flh, Wayne Escoffery-ts, Danny Grissett-p, Ugonna Okegwo-b, Johnathan Blake-d). From The Time of the Sun. HighNote. 2011.
The Question. Tom Harrell Trio
(Tom Harrell-tp/flh, Wayne Escoffery-ts, Danny Grissett-p/key). From Number Five. HighNote. 2012.

After five records with the quintet, Harrell shook it up with his next disc, Colors of a Dream, in 2014. The line up includes a four-voice frontline of Harrell and Escoffery joined by Jaleel Shaw on alto and Esperanza Spalding on vocals. Spalding also plays bass paired with fellow bassist Ugonna Okegwa and the sextet is completed by Johnathan Blake on drums. The only member of the long-standing quintet not present at this outing is Danny Grissett on keys and his chordal contributions are not missed as the front line more than fills the role including some terrific block-chord work on the tune Seventy.

While sticking with his veteran rhythm section of Okegwa and Blake, Harrell switched things up again on his 2016 release Something Gold, Something Blue. Charles Altura joined on guitar in lieu of a pianist, but the bigger surprise was the addition of Ambrose Akinmusire on second trumpet in lieu of Harrell’s typical tenor front line partner. As Roscoe Britt wrote, “…Akinmusire is an inspired choice. He has always sounded a bit like a Harrell acolyte, and the depth of his chops enriches the horn vamps and voicings that are integral to Harrell’s work. When they solo after each other, their overlapping virtues – the easy negotiation of complex changes, the bold phrasing contrasted by a relatively soft tone – retains the overall flow and sensibility more organically than Harrell’s previous cohorts on reeds. Altura is a less-pronounced replacement, but enhances the liquidity with his chording and choice fills, which seem to create more space and freedom for Okegwo and especially Blake.”

Seventy. Tom Harrell Sextet
(Tom Harrell-tp/flh, Jaleel Shaw-as, Wayne Escoffery-ts, Esperanza Spalding-b/voc, Ugonna Okegwa-b, Johnathan Blake-d). From Colors of a Dream. HighNote, 2014.
Phantasy in Latin. Tom Harrell Sextet
(Tom Harrell-tp/flh, Jaleel Shaw-as, Wayne Escoffery-ts, Esperanza Spalding-b/voc, Ugonna Okegwa-b, Johnathan Blake-d). From Colors of a Dream. HighNote, 2014.
Circuit. Tom Harrell Quintet
(Tom Harrell-flh, Ambrose Akinmusire-tp, Charles Altura-g, Ugonna Okegwo-b, Johnathan Blake-d). From Something Gold, Something Blue. HighNote. 2016.

For his 2017 disc, Moving Picture, Harrell stripped down to a quartet of Grissett and Okegwa on keys and bass plus Adam Cruz on drums. After so many discs with a quintet or more, the spare sound of this ensemble focuses attention on the full lush sound of Harrell’s trumpet playing. Never one to feature showy speed or range, Harrell’s sound is never less than sensuously melodic.

For 2019’s Infinity, Harrell returns to a quintet, this time featuring one of my favorite tenor players, Mark Turner, along with Charles Altura on guitar, Ben Street on bass and, once again, Johnathan Blake on drums. On JazzTimes, David Whiteis observed, “A powerful spirituality illuminates Tom Harrell’s work, but that doesn’t mean that there’s anything pretentious or dogmatic going on. An irrepressible sense of play also abounds; … Harrell sounds both delighted by his musical quest and enraptured by what he discovers. The Fast, this set’s opener, might easily have been titled The Feast – it’s a veritable smorgasbord of inspiration, propelled by a surging drive reminiscent of Africa/Brass-era Coltrane. (Johnathan Blake’s drumming, reminiscent of Elvin Jones, accentuates that feel.) Harrell’s solo work summons quickness, precision, and focus along with deep melodicism and tonal surety; saxophonist Mark Turner and guitarist Charles Altura, even when they ramp down the velocity, are no less rigorous in their imaginative flow, and their timbre is likewise sure yet flexible and expressive.”

Montego Bay. Tom Harrell Quartet
(Tom Harrell-tp/flh, Danny Grissett-p, Ugonna Okegwo-b, Adam Cruz-d). From Moving Picture. HighNote. 2017.
Four the Moment. Tom Harrell Quartet
(Tom Harrell-tp/flh, Danny Grissett-p, Ugonna Okegwo-b, Adam Cruz-d). From Moving Picture. HighNote. 2017.
The Fast. Tom Harrell Quintet
(Tom Harrell-tp/fl, Mark Turner-ts, Charles Altura-g, Ben Street-b, Jonathan Blake-d). From Infinity. 2019.

At 74, Harrell is one of the most consistent artists in the music releasing strong discs every year or so as he has for over thirty years. His characteristic soft and rounded tone coupled with his strong composing (all the works played in this program are his), and his masterful leading of slowly shifting ensembles leads to a high level of anticipation for each of his releases and he doesn’t disappoint.

Kelman, John. (2010, April 13). AllAboutJazz. Tom Harrell: Roman Nights. https://www.allaboutjazz.com/roman-nights-tom-harrell-highnote-records-review-by-john-kelman.php

Kelman, John. (2011, August 16). AllAboutJazz. Tom Harrell: The Time Of The Sun. https://www.allaboutjazz.com/the-time-of-the-sun-tom-harrell-highnote-records-review-by-john-kelman.php

AAJ Italy Staff. (2012, October 15). AllAboutJazz. Tom Harrell: Number Five. https://www.allaboutjazz.com/number-five-tom-harrell-highnote-records-review-by-aaji-staff.php

West, Michael J. (2014, January 12). JazzTimes. Tom Harrell: Colors of a Dream. https://jazztimes.com/reviews/albums/tom-harrell-colors-of-a-dream/

Robson, Britt. (2016, November 19). JazzTimes. Tom Harrell: Something Gold, Something Blue. https://jazztimes.com/reviews/albums/tom-harrell-something-gold-something-blue/

Tamarkin, Jeff. (2017, December 13). JazzTimes. Tom Harrell:  Moving Picture (HighNote). https://jazztimes.com/reviews/albums/tom-harrell-moving-picture/

Whiteis, David. (2019, April 22). JazzTimes. Tom Harrell: Infinity (HighNote). https://jazztimes.com/reviews/albums/tom-harrell-infinity-highnote/

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