Tom Harrell: A Quest. Part 1, The Early Years.

I like making playlists. I will do this for just about any theme that pops into my head. Some months ago, for example, I was listening for the millionth time to Lee Morgan’s Ceora when it flashed before my mind that there are a number of compositions by jazz trumpeters that I would call “pretty.” This seemed to surprise me. Perhaps my brain finds brass and “pretty” contradictory. Whatever “pretty” meant to me at that moment, other examples immediately came to mind: Freddie Hubbard’s Little Sunflower, Clifford Brown’s Joy Spring, Nat Adderley’s Sermonette, Hugh Masakela’s Grazing in the Grass, and on the uncertain border of my brain’s concept of pretty, The Moontrane and Rosewood by Woody Shaw. I gathered these songs into a playlist I decided to call “Horn of Pretty”.

[One year later: Of course not everyone feels any contradiction between brass and “pretty.” When I tried to explain this random thought to Frank Alkyer, long-time editor of DownBeat, he was surprised that this would even occur to me and immediately thought of the example of Dizzy Gillespie’s Con Alma. Why I never thought of Con Alma I cannot explain.]

I could not immediately think of others, but the playlist was seeded and I moved on. Then one day the proverbial light bulb went on in my head: Of course there must be a “pretty” song, undoubtedly quite a few, by the lyrical trumpeter and prolific composer Tom Harrell. I was somewhat familiar with Harrell’s work from the 2000s — I had four or five of his CDs, and Barbara and I saw him once at the Village Vanguard. However, no specific song came to mind, and that presented a challenge, because over Harrell’s long and still active career I counted sixty-nine albums as sideman, co-leader, and leader listed on Wikipedia, and skads more in Klaus Gottwald’s comprehensive and meticulous discography. That and the fact that I find Harrell an unusually interesting person led to a labor of love: A Quest! A Quest for a song (or two or three) of Tom Harrell’s for inclusion in my Horn of Pretty.

So I packed my bags and prepared to Sail Away!

I also decided to document my Trip. So here are the Stories from my Passages in Harrell-land, what I have seen, heard, and learned about this somewhat Quixotic Character and his music. To be clear, my account is not intended as an objective biography or an encyclopedic treatment of the music. Others can and should and will do that. I am doing the one thing no one else can. I am writing about MY experience with Harrell and his music, MY journey.

My account has taken on the following Form: Part 1, the music; Part 2, Harrell himself.

I Heard Gabriel

(I would not have gotten far on this Trip without a good map. I want to thank Klaus Gottwald. Klaus has generously shared his discography, and we have corresponded and become friends along the way. Vielen dank, Klaus! I will abbreviate references to this discography as KG.)

Harrell was born in 1946 in Urbana, Illinois but grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. His father was a professor in the Business School at Stanford, and Harrell graduated from Stanford in 1969 with a degree in music composition. He had been playing the trumpet since he was 8. He got into jazz listening to his parents’ records and to Bay Area radio station KPFA. At age 13 he heard Clifford Brown on the radio: “I heard a celestial sound. It was, essentially, Gabriel.”

“I started studying trumpet when I was eight years old. I was interested in trying to improvise. I remember I didn’t know that much about chords but I wanted to improvise, so I would play with other children in the neighborhood … I was playing in ensembles in school playing European classical music. But I still wanted to improvise.”

Tom Harrell, interview with Fred Jung

Only a few degrees separate my and Harrell’s life in time and space. He is a year and a half older than me. When he was five his family moved from Urbana to San Francisco, and while he was in college at Stanford, I moved from the Chicago suburbs to Urbana (Champaign-Urbana) to attend the University of Illinois. I arrived there already a passionate jazz fan, though not a musician. I got a jazz radio show there and learned a lot about all kinds of music working in Discount Records, a music mecca just off campus, and hanging out with musician friends who were studying at the University’s School of Music, a mecca in turn of “new” music (Harry Partch, Sal Martirano, Herbert Brün, John Cage as artist in residence). John Garvey was also there. Garvey, whom I got to interview on my show, was one of those amazing people who could, in his case, play the viola in the Walden String Quartet and lead the University’s renowned Jazz Big Band, which he created. To jump ahead, I moved to New York City in 1968, just a few years ahead of Harrell. In Champaign-Urbana I had a nodding acquaintance with trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater, who moved to New York at about the same time. I also possibly overlapped for a year at Champaign-Urbana with the great pianist Jim McNeely. McNeely studied with Garvey and also moved from Urbana to NYC.

On this Trip I am looking backwards and forwards in Time’s Mirror, and since Harrell and I coincide in age, it has turned out in some ways to be a personal Νόστος back to my own jazz roots.

West Coast

So, unlike most of the jazz musicians from preceding generations, Harrell had a college degree. But like those earlier generations, he honed his chops and learned the music business on the road. From 1969-1972 he played in the big bands of Stan Kenton and Woody Herman and in Coke and Pete Escovedo’s San Francisco-based Latin big band Azteca. Harrell’s recording history begins in 1969 with Kenton Roars! At the Golden Lion, a live performance from Dayton, Ohio. Kenton has some fun introducing “our jazz trumpet player from California, Tom Harrell” as the featured player on Sodomy, from the musical Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical. Yes, unfortunately, Tom Harrell’s professional career begins engulfed in scandal! Harrell does fine and gets a very warm audience reaction. He is heard on the rest of the album too, including some muted trumpet work on Tonight and My Foolish Heart. From the Editor’s Review on Amazon: “Tom Harrell is excellent on trumpet and clearly the band’s finest soloist. Those hot trumpet riffs behind tenor man Mike Morris on Reuben’s Blues are worth the price of admission!”

In those years Woody Herman was doing big band arrangements of pop songs, and on his 1970 album Woody Harrell was the featured performer on Johnny Mandel’s achingly beautiful A Time for Love. Stuart Nicholson: “It was clear the 24-year-old had in place tone, technique and a flair for lucid melodic construction.”

In 1972, fresh from stints with Carlos Santana, Coke and Pete Escovedo formed the ultimately unsustainably large Latin collective Azteca. Harrell joined and gets some of the writing and arrangement credits on Azteca (1972) and Pyramid of the Moon (1973). As well Harrell gets a full-fledged trumpet solo on Non pacem (Azteca) and, on Pyramid, eight bars on Someday We’ll Get By and some 2- and 4-bar exchanges with trombonist Pat O’Hara on Red Onions. I am already having fun on my Trip. I am loving hearing these Chicano-centric Latin recordings for the first time. My orientation to Latin jazz has been more Nuyorican, you might say, beginning with a high school Spanish I like to exercise, a summer of work in Puerto Rico (1967), and my move to lower Manhattan in 1968. I have a pulse, so all forms of Latin music — everything brilliantly documented by Fernando Trueba in his year 2000 Calle 54 — get my body moving and my heart rate way up. (I would be curious to know if Manhattan denizen Tom Harrell ever had any interaction with the Bronx’s Jerry González & The Fort Apache Band.)

Harrell’s connection to the San Francisco-based, Santana-centric, Chicano rock scene is further testified to by his picture on an album cover for the band Malo. Tom looks cool as a West Coast hippie!

But not too cool to play on Joe Cool ! Harrell played as part of the Vince Guaraldi Quartet/Quintet on four Peanuts television specials from 1972-1974, which were recorded in San Francisco. Various web sites credit Harrell with some of the arranging, though according to Wikipedia the conductor and arranger for all these sessions was John Scott Trotter.

New York City – Horace Silver

But the East Coast soon beckoned. Harrell’s appearance on records accelerates in the mid-70s, mostly as sideman but now also a few times as co-leader and leader. That he was by then regarded by the top jazz musicians of the day as a go-to trumpet player is an obvious deduction from simply looking at the names of the people he recorded with in that decade: Horace Silver, Cecil Payne, Idris Muhammad, Bob Brookmeyer, Mel Lewis, Bill Evans, Lee Konitz, Gerry Mulligan, etc.

Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Horace Silver’s combos were breeding grounds for up-and-coming horn players. Horace Silver once heard Tom Harrell play in the Woody Herman band in Boston, and it made a lasting impression. A couple years later he called Harrell and invited him to join him in New York. To this day Harrell lives on the Upper West Side. He toured with Silver and was the trumpeter on Silver’s five Silver ‘n x albums from 1975 through 1979 (x = Brass; Wood; Voices; Percussion; Strings). Noah Baerman, for his top 10 favorite Harrell tracks (writing in 2014), selected the frenetic hard bop Assimilation from Silver ‘n Wood (1976) for purposes of reminding everybody that “for all his great contributions as a composer and a developer of modern sounds, ultimately Tom Harrell also has a great legacy of simply playing the s*** out of the trumpet!”

Harrell needed a passport, because Silver had bookings around the world, and thanks to Umbria Jazz 1976 on YouTube, we get to see what Harrell looks like at age 30, alongside his 25-year-old horn mate, tenor saxophonist Bob Berg.

I was a big fan of Horace Silver’s 1960s Blue Note classics — the ring tone on my iPhone is Song For My Father — but I was turned off by the New Age turn Silver took in the 70s and 80s (“We call it self-help holistic metaphysical music meant for the upliftment of man’s soul, mind and body”). But then I never wore bell-bottoms either! That said, listening now to some of the Silver ‘n x tracks and watching the Umbria video, I can see that, beneath the cringeworthy song titles (“rather as if he were promoting a brand of soap” – Stuart Nicholson), the band was really cooking. I know from interviews I have read that there is a spiritual side to Harrell, and I would be curious to know how seriously he took Silver’s messaging at the time.

New York City – Have Trumpet Will Play

Besides the fact that he could play the s*** out of the trumpet, what else can we glean from these early recordings? Not too much from Lee Konitz’s Yes, Yes Nonet (1979), other than that Harrell contributes to the nonet’s lovely ensemble playing as arranged by trombonist Jimmy Knepper. John Eckert and Harrell double on trumpet and flugelhorn. The trumpet is featured on My Buddy, but according to Bill Kirchner it is a trumpet overdub by Eckert. The arrangement of Wayne Shorter’s Footprints visits, in order, the trombone section, the woodwinds, the trumpets, the piano, and the bass; the trumpet interval begins with trumpeter #1, follows with some interplay between the two, then trumpeter #2, and I think Harrell is #2. In an interview with Ethan Iverson, Harrell described some music lessons he had with Lee Konitz in the 60s in California, and he recounted with pride how Konitz told a mutual friend, “Tom’s going to be a good trumpet player”! I am sure Harrell was a keen student of the arranging on Yes, Yes Nonet.

Harrell played on these two excellent large ensemble albums.

Due also to its ensemble size and to lack of definitive information, I am uncertain about Gerry Mulligan and His Orchestra’s Walk On The Water (1980), which won the 1982 Grammy for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album — Harrell is listed on web sites as one of five trumpeters. But from what I can glean I believe he gets the solo honors, almost certainly, just listening to it, the brief and lovely solo on pianist Mitchel Forman’s Angelica (that’s probably also him leading the restatement of the theme at the end). Probably also the solo on the title track, equally lovely. Perhaps the liner notes clarify, but when I stopped at the gift shop on my Trip, the only CD I could find was going for $970.43.

Cecil Payne is the quintessential exponent of Charlie Parker-style bop on baritone sax. Harrell’s earliest memories of jazz are listening to bebop on KPFA in northern California, and on the title track on Payne’s Bird gets the worm (1976) he gets the prescribed two-chorus solo (or four-chorus, depending on how you count). No question Harrell can play the bop changes. Otherwise, nothing especially memorable about it. Coincidentally, the October 2020 Downbeat came out while I was writing this, and in its Blindfold Test trumpeter Jeremy Pelt is played this track (Pelt is a fellow recording artist with Harrell on the HighNote label). He doesn’t recognize Harrell, but afterwards he says, “I was going to say Tom Harrell. There were certain things that didn’t sound as precise as I knew him to be that led me off the scent.”

Also in 1976, in a for then more happening style of jazz, Harrell co-wrote, arranged, and played a strong solo on Sudan on Idris Muhammad’s House of The Rising Sun (1976). (He also co-wrote and arranged Pipe Stem, which was added to the 2003 digital remaster of this album.) I first learned of the explosive trombonist Barry Rogers on Eddie Palmieri’s awesome Lo Qué Traigo Es Sabroso (1964), and in Harrell’s arrangement of Sudan Rogers also plays a forceful solo. We can see that Harrell was a musician’s musician. He played wherever he could, and he enthusiastically adapted to whatever style and concept the leader had in mind. He could have had a stable career as a studio musician, and in fact he tells Iverson about being a studio musician in the 70s and about his flirtation at the time with disco! He recalls his work on House of The Rising Sun in this context. But it was clear by this time, as he turned 30, that Harrell also had a need to express himself more personally in solo improvisation, composition, and arrangement.

In fact a week after his thirtieth birthday (1976), Harrell recorded his first album as leader. This was released with the title Aurora (one of Harrell’s five original compositions on the album) by a short-lived New York label, Adamo Records and Tapes. It was re-released by Pinnacle Records, a UK distributor, in 1987 as Total!.

I do not know what motivated the name change. “Aurora” harmonizes with Harrell’s perception, with his senses and with his intellect, of a close relationship between visual and aural phenomena.

In general the album is in the disco/fusion/funk/Latin vein of House of The Rising Sun. That is, it is of its time. Besides Harrell’s Silver horn mate Bob Berg (who was also one of the horn players on House of The Rising Sun), the band has a guitar, a pianist who doubles on electric piano, a bassist who doubles on electric bass, and a percussionist (Muhammad Abdullah) as well as a drummer (Lenny White). The Latin-party opening number On the Roof takes Harrell back to his Escovedo days. The album closer is an uptempo version of Bronislau Kaper’s Invitation and has a marvelous flugelhorn solo (as well as an excellent solo by Bob Berg). I guess some others dug this too, because a few have uploaded this solo to YouTube along with a transcription of it. In between, Harrell’s composition The Water’s Edge has become an earworm of the pleasant sort for me. The album is enjoyable enough, but I can’t help but be amused by Amazon reviewer Tough Customer, who, writing in 2014, says of the title track (Aurora): “[It] has a vague ‘disco’ feel to it, with a silly ultra-funky bass line which does not pair well with the haunting abstract jazz ambiance of Harrell’s trumpet work. Imagine KC and the Sunshine Band playing a Bach Cantata in bell bottoms. Or the Berlin Philharmonic playing the ‘Theme from Shaft’ in tuxedos. Incongruous.”

For the record (so to speak), some discographies list another 70s recording with Harrell as leader, Mind’s Ear, and are specific as to the date (1978). Nevertheless, neither Klaus Gottwald nor I can find a trace of it anywhere, and Klaus regards it as a “ghost recording.” Too bad, because I like the title. (I brought a book with me on my Trip, Oliver Sacks’s Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. Chapter 4 is about musical images in the brain, i.e., the mind’s ear.) Here is an interesting challenge a jazz educator might give her student: Create a forgery. Write and record, say, five “Harrell” compositions, toss in a standard, and convince the world it is the lost Mind’s Ear.

By 1979 Bill Evans’s health was in decline, and according to family and friends, the suicide in the spring of that year of his older brother Harry, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, was effectively the end for Bill too. We Will Meet Again, alluding to this tragic event, was recorded in August of 1979 and ended up being Evans’s last studio album. He died a year later.

A sad occasion but beautiful music

For obvious personal reasons Evans played solo piano on the standard For All We Know (We May Meet Again) and again on the album’s closer, his own affirmatively titled composition We Will Meet Again. For the remaining tracks, in a quintet format unusual for him, Evans added Harrell on trumpet and Larry Schneider on saxophone. Harrell is excellent throughout. Three of these tracks are Evans compositions known from previous albums, Five, Only Child, and Peri’s Scope. On Only Child Harrell really shows us what he can do on a ballad. Of the remaining two Evans compositions I especially like Bill’s Hit Tune. Despite what the title may self-mockingly suggest, the mood is quite wistful. After Evans’s two-minute-long ruminative intro, I particularly like the tight unison statement of the melody by Harrell’s flugelhorn and Schneider’s soprano sax (with Evans comping now on electric piano, another unusual feature of the album). The musicians must have known the circumstances surrounding the session. One wonders what Harrell was thinking.

1979 was indeed a busy year for Harrell. Besides the Lee Konitz and Bill Evans sessions, Harrell got two cracks as studio session co-leader.

1979: Two excellent albums with Harrell as co-lead

In the first he was teamed up with valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer. To be accurate, the session was recorded in the fall of 1978 but released in 1979. It was titled Shadow Box after one of two compositions from pianist Benny Aronov, whom the session was intended to feature. Brookmeyer and Harrell make for a wonderfully mellow combination reminiscent for me of the delightful Brookmeyer-Clark Terry LPs of a decade and a half earlier, some of the earliest jazz I ever heard, on Daddy-O Daylie’s daytime show on WNTD/WAAF-AM in Chicago (where I once met Daddy-O’s fellow DJ Jessie Owens!). The selection is eclectic:

  • Aranov’s two pieces
  • standards, for example, Strayhorn’s U.M.M.G. to open the album
  • a theme taken from the third Debussy string quartet (which foreshadows later chamber work from Harrell)
  • the album’s closer, Harrell’s The Water’s Edge (originally recorded on Aurora)

The Water’s Edge is a gently paced 40-bar melody in 3/4 whose flow indeed makes me think of the motion of water gently lapping on a shore. The music is forever, as they say, but for ephemerality check out, on the cover of the 2001 digital reissue, Brookmeyer’s and Harrell’s mullets, as well as Brookmeyer’s shirt! Harrell’s black crew-neck is not ephemeral, however. In fact I find Harrell’s sartorial style over the years as tasteful as his playing.

There was more to come with Bob Brookmeyer.

Konitz’s Yes, Yes Nonet was on the Danish label SteepleChase Records, which at the time was also recording the American trumpeter John McNeil. In 1979 SteepleChase made the inspired choice of pairing McNeil and Harrell for the trumpet duo album Look To The Sky. As somebody who thinks he knows something about jazz, I should be more familiar with John McNeil than I am. To be honest, in the back-to-back solos I cannot always figure out which one is which. Anyway, this is a fine album. The producer evidently wanted a straight-ahead jazz album that would in part capitalize on popular jazz recordings of the recent past. He got it. The album opens with Chasing the Bird and closes with Sam Jones’s hip Unit 7, aka Cannon’s Theme. Listen to Unit 7 in chronological order on Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley [1962], including for comparison brother Nat’s flugelhorn solo, then Wes Montgomery’s Smokin’ At The Half Note [1965], then McNeil & Harrell, and you will know one reason why I really love jazz. Harrell’s Latin Terrestris (“down to earth”?) and lilting waltz Little Dancer are both joyous and make you want to sing. For the album’s title track they chose a characteristically gorgeous melody by my all-time favorite composer Antonio Carlos Jobim. Play Jobim’s Wave (1965) and for comparison Urbie Green’s lush trombone there, then John & Tom, and you will know another reason why I really love jazz.

One Minor Annoyance, though (Minor Annoyance is something I co-wrote with Wayne back when I was with Miles). Buster Williams is the bassist on Bird gets the worm, Match Box, and Look To The Sky. Williams has credentials up the wazoo, and I like him just fine on Bird gets the worm starting right off with his walking bass in the arrangement’s piano-less in medias res intro. But I have to admit I find his playing on Match Box and Look To The Sky irritatingly obtrusive. My ears at least sense a mismatch between Williams’s (70s?) style and the otherwise pleasantly traditionalist style of these two albums, particularly Match Box. I notice the jazz area of my auditory cortex seems to get especially irritated if I am not liking the bass or drumming. In music of this same period, the late 70s, I remember having the same reaction to Rufus Reid in the Dexter Gordon quartet. I am in no way saying my judgement is correct; in fact, this is not a judgement, it is a reaction. I also find that the severity of my reaction varies widely from one listening to another.

In 1978, the year Harrell and Bob Brookmeyer made Match Box, Thad Jones abruptly left the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra and moved to Copenhagen. Some people claim there’s a woman to blame. Mel Lewis, however, carried the great Vanguard-resident rehearsal band forward, and around 1980 Bob Brookmeyer assumed the role of the Orchestra’s music director.

1980-1983: Brookmeyer, Lewis, Harrell

From 1981 to 1983 Harrell played in the trumpet section, and he appears on two recordings made in January 1982. As Mel Lewis explains in the liner notes to Mel Lewis and The Jazz Orchestra Live At The Village Vanguard: Featuring the Music of Bob Brookmeyer, Brookmeyer composed with specific soloists in mind, à la Duke Ellington and Stan Kenton. Harrell’s flugelhorn is featured on Brookmeyer’s ballad Nevermore – beautiful work! – and he is the opening horn on a haunting version of My Funny Valentine (the album’s one standard, though the arrangement is hardly standard).

Brookmeyer used a subset of the Orchestra’s musicians for his album Through A Looking Glass. Mel Lewis is on drums and percussion, Marc Johnson on bass, Marvelous (Jim) McNeely on piano, and Harrell and Dick Oatts (soprano sax) are added as horns on the musically punned April March (which is, actually, a march – Oatts and Harrell both have sizzling solos), The Magic Shop, and Top of the World. On the back of the album jacket Harrell is listed as “Tommy Harrell”! Musicians clearly regarded Harrell with affection. I am enthralled by this album and protest that it is only available in vinyl. From the album’s overall conceit (the title Through A Looking Glass is a concept, not the name of a song), to the complex, shifting sands of Brookmeyer’s compositions and arrangements, to the effective use of Brookmeyer-on-Brookmeyer (overdubbing himself on trombone – check out Mirrors), to Brookmeyer’s quirky liner notes — you might say Brookmeyer is a Quixotic Character.

Harrell was not yet with the Orchestra in February 1980 when they played at the Village Vanguard and made the LP Bob Brookmeyer Composer, Arranger – a Program of Compositions and Arrangements for Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra – with guest appearances by Clark Terry and Bob Brookmeyer. Side B contains the “guest appearances” of Terry and Brookmeyer (though it is mostly all Terry) playing Brookmeyer’s El Co and The Fan Club in celebration of the Terry-Brookmeyer collaboration from the 60s (Terry and Brookmeyer called each other “Co,” from “co-leader”). Brookmeyer’s again quirky liner notes shed light on his process of composing. “The conversations in my house that deal with music contain words such as ‘shape, form, color, attitude and structure.’ I begin pieces where they begin and stop when they are through. These were colored as I heard them, reflecting probably what my life was like as well as what my palette held. Building a piece holds the fascination for me and if it feels good at the end, I am glad and ready to start another.” This is strikingly like what I have seen Harrell say about his concept of composition. Brookmeyer’s was a thinking person’s wit. I have no doubt he and it exercised a permanent influence on Harrell. Clark Terry was also a wit. I don’t remember what brought it to my attention — probably a strong desire to go to a restaurant during the 2020 pandemic — but recently I have been repeatedly asking Alexa to play Clark and Chico O’Farrill’s Spanish Rice. Clark Terry’s and Tom Harrell’s orbits intersected for several decades.

Bob Brookmeyer passed away at the end of 2011, days shy of his 82nd birthday, and Clark Terry, at 94, in 2015.

Harrell’s work with Brookmeyer and Mel Lewis, following on his already rich experience with Kenton, Herman, Azteca, the conceptual extravaganzas of the 70s Horace Silver, Konitz, Mulligan, Chuck Israels’s National Jazz Ensemble (see below) – these undoubtedly whet Harrell’s appetite for large ensemble composing and arranging, an appetite it would take more than a decade to indulge. Harrell’s career was also to intersect with Mel Lewis bandmates such as Joe Lovano and Kenny Garrett, all part of the New York jazz ecosystem.

Europe – Have Trumpet Will Play

Life is short, and on a Trip you sometimes can’t pack in everything there is to see and do. In the 1980-1983 period Harrell also played with another large ensemble, the Swiss keyboardist, composer, and arranger George Gruntz’s The George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band (GG CJB). Gruntz wrote and arranged new material every year for the CJB’s annual tour, whose personnel included an impressive roster of American and European jazz giants, including Harrell as captured on The GG CJB Live at the “Quartier Latin” Berlin (1980) and The GG CJB ’83: Theatre (recorded 1983 in a German studio and released in 1984). I have not had the time to make a study of Gruntz, the CJB, or of these particular LPs. I don’t think they contain any Harrell solos. My casual impression is that, very much like Thad Jones, Mel Lewis, and Bob Brookmeyer, Gruntz had a fertile and eclectic imagination, and the CJB and its audiences had a lot of fun together, but that in Gruntz’s case the wit for me would end up bordering on the corny. Harrell was to have a more intimate association with another Swiss jazz artist and with the European jazz scene at the end of the decade.

Play of Light

A beautiful cover, but a curious history and not my favorite Harrell pick

Harrell’s second album as leader was Play of Light (1982/1986). This was a recording session at the Van Gelder studios in February 1982, with Ricky Ford on tenor saxophone, Bruce Forman guitar, Albert Dailey piano, Eddie Gomez bass, and Billy Hart drums. Herb Wong assembled this crew and flew them to New Jersey in order to showcase Tom’s music. Wong was a Bay Area jazz DJ (KJAZ), jazz educator, promoter and producer, and science teacher in his day job, and in the mid-80s he was an executive of BlackHawk Records, the jazz subsidiary of Aspen Records. He had seen the teenage Harrell perform in San Francisco and had followed Harrell’s career enthusiastically. BlackHawk only released the results of this recording session in 1986, with the characteristically-Harrell title Play of Light — “[Tom] was musing about the interplay between light on water and the duality of what one sees and what one hears,” Wong explains in his liner notes. The title track along with The Boulevard, Mood Swings and Blue News are Harrell originals.

The visual half of this synesthetic duality is strikingly captured on the vinyl’s album cover. I am not particularly an audiophile, and over the decades I have willingly swapped vinyl for VHS, VHS for compact disc, and compact disc for digital. I don’t have a stereo system and on occasion on this Trip I have simply steered my ship past early albums that are only available on vinyl, which is the case with Play of Light. However, as this was Harrell’s second trip to bat as leader, I felt it was important to hear the album, so I bought the vinyl and had a media outfit near me convert it to digital. That experience has unleashed a flood of pleasurable tactile memories. I am not complaining about the convenience of merely having to open my mouth and say “Alexa, play Shadow Box by Bob Brookmeyer and Tom Harrell” (to pick an example Alexa actually has), but I miss the days of thumbing through record bins, of inspecting hip album cover art, of slitting open the newly purchased jacket with the corner of my thumbnail (by contrast, oh how I hate opening newly purchased CDs), of blowing dust off the vinyl surface before playing to prevent skips and preserve the needle, of carefully placing the vinyl on the turntable and skillfully dropping the needle on the chosen track.

So I am glad I got the vinyl, but I can’t say I find the music on Play of Light to be among my Harrell favorites. Listening to Side A’s title track, two things strike me immediately. On the negative side of the ledger, I am not a fan of Billy Hart’s Gatling-gun style of drumming. On the plus side, I like that the album’s first solo is by the other horn (Ricky Ford’s tenor saxophone). Harrell is never self-centered, even with a band explicitly assembled “for Tom to share his music.” Ford sits out the next track, Matt Dennis’s ballad Everything Happens to Me. On this Trip I have learned you can never go wrong with Harrell’s playing on a ballad. Everything Happens to Me also has a personal association for me, an especially fond memory of one of my earliest jazz discoveries in high school, Eddie Harris’s Cool Sax, Warm Heart (1964). On Harrell’s The Boulevard (TH: “Pictures of tree-lined streets in Barcelona and Dolores Street in San Francisco are associations”), it is Ford, guitarist Bruce Forman, Harrell, then Albert Dailey’s piano. Revealingly, Mood Swings is “almost autobiographical,” says Harrell, “since I’m trying to experience balance in music and the way I live, and the repeated figure could be a symbol to apply in life.” Forman’s guitar kicks off the soloing on Blue News, a hard driving track for which Hart’s drumming is most suitable. The album closes with its second standard, Andy LaVerne’s Where You Were. Dailey takes the opening solo, just to evenly distribute those honors.

“Music is a religion and it can structure your life and provide order in the universe.”

Harrell to Herb Wong, liner notes to Play of Light

Music a religion. Music a provider of order in the universe. That gives some real insight into Harrell. No earworms for me here, though; all things considered, I find the insight into Harrell’s Muse in Play of Light’s liner notes more memorable than the music itself. I will speculate later on what motivated the release of this album in 1986. Why it sat in the vault for four years I do not know.

Dinner, a Cocktail, and Sleep

Touring these early West Coast and East Coast landmarks, it has been a busy and enjoyable Trip so far, and it is time to pause, rest, and take stock of what we have seen, heard, and learned so far.

overall impressions
  • First, Harrell was born to play. His intention to pursue a career in jazz seems never to have been in doubt. He had a particular penchant for improvising, which he was already doing confidently as a kid. He heard Gabriel. Kenton called, and he was ready.
  • Second, he was a musician’s musician. I have only scratched the surface of these early years. Just to arbitrarily take 1978, for example, KG lists Harrell as sideman on albums by Ronnie Cuber, Bob Berg, Richard Sussman, Manhattan Focus, and Rick Drexler that I have not heard and that in some cases are no longer available. He welcomes the work, he seems happy to play with just about anyone and in any style. In short, he is in demand. As a corollary, he is a bit under the radar, probably better known to musicians than to casual fans at this stage.
  • Third, at the time of these “early” recordings Harrell was already in his 30s. He was no flash in the pan — good jazz musicians never are. Jazz is a sophisticated art form, and it takes practice and hard-won experience to hone one’s playing chops and fine tune one’s musicality. It takes dedication and persistence to stay in a business that is highly unlikely to make you rich. Harrell had all these qualities. “Early” is relative.

In some sense, he does not seem to me to have been in a hurry.

compose, improvise, play the s*** out of the trumpet

The period also reveals his emerging talent for composing. I note especially The Water’s Edge, Terristris, and Little Dancer. They are all lovely and easy to listen to, but they have somewhat unusual structures. Watch this space.

What about his playing style? Harrell’s own thoughts looking back to this time in his career are captured in a 1998 interview with Bill Milkowski in JazzTimes. He says he struggled with his direction through the 70s, prior to joining Phil Woods. “I was worried about being old fashioned in the 70s, but at the same time I was afraid of being too modern and inaccessible, so there was this kind of double reality going on.” That seems to me to reflect the state of jazz itself in the 70s.

How would I myself characterize Harrell’s playing style? Describing music in words is not easy and is in a sense unnatural. It is a music critic’s job to try, but since I am not a music critic, let me borrow from others. In terms of lineage: “His style mixes together the power of Clifford Brown with the lyricism of Chet Baker” (Scott Yanow). Brownie for sure and universally noted, including by Harrell himself. Lyrical, definitely, though entirely without the anemic quality I at least do not particularly like in Baker — as Noah Baerman said, Harrell can play the s*** out of the trumpet. Dan Cross’s claim also rings true to me, that Harrell “at times reveals the influence of Kenny Dorham, though his sound on the open horn is somewhat harder and brassier than Dorham’s.”

(In his interview with Ethan Iverson, Harrell is on record as finding Chet Baker “amazing.” His sincerity is not to be doubted. As noted, he is a team player. And in every interview I have seen, he is unstintingly generous in his assessment of other musicians, past and present. Gratitude and Bouquets.)

Dan Morgenstern puts “lyrical” and “play the s* out of the trumpet” this way: “At once warm and brilliant.” With respect to the “brilliant” half of this balance , Harrell never succumbs to the trumpeter’s natural temptation to show off. The other half of this coin, however, is that he belongs squarely to what I call History of Jazz, Part 2. More on that below.

Besides “brassy” and “brilliant,” another “b” word one often encounters is “burnished.” In fact, Harrell’s one-time booking agent Joel Chriss promoted this quality: “He’s a jazz trumpeter known for his burnished tone and lyrical improvisational style.” “Burnished” for me also gets into the natural differences between trumpet and flugelhorn. I have not made a study of this, but I believe Harrell and Clark Terry may be the best ever at exploiting the distinct powers of these brass cousins.

life live time

Stuart Nicholson enumerates three qualities in Harrell’s playing: “[a] gift for lyrical invention, economy of line, wholesome tone.” After repeated listening, this “economy of line” in Harrell’s improvisation is perhaps the most striking quality to me. Like all the great jazz trumpeters, Harrell can play breathtakingly fast and achingly slow as appropriate, but he does it with a sustained flow through.

In some sense, as with his career, Harrell’s playing does not seem to me to be in a hurry.

Some postscripts and further reflections:

Sometime after I wrote this, I found this from my favorite writer on music:

“[Harrell] 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.”

Ben Ratliff, 2014

Harrell himself links the act of composition with the act of improvisation, as told to Ken Franckling: “Sometimes it feels so good to go all out in the moment and play as hard as I can. The energy of the moment sort of creates that feeling. But I want to pace myself a little more. Everything is part of a unity. An improviser is not playing one solo at a time, there is a curve – all of the solos in the evening are related – whether you think of it compositionally, or in terms of form.”

In a more Twilight Zone vein:

Also after I wrote this: It is the Saturday after Thanksgiving, 2020. Barbara and I caught Jason Moran & The Bandwagon livestreaming from the Village Vanguard last evening. Moran pivoted on the piano bench and sang to the camera “Life Live Time, Life Live Time / … You ain’t got but one life to live / You better take your time.” Coincidentally, on this same Saturday I received in the mail my CD copy of Time/Life (2016), Ruth Cameron Haden and Carla Bley’s posthumous tribute album to Charlie Haden and the Liberation Music Orchestra. Bley’s Time/Life is the title track. The idea for the title, she says, came from an anecdote she had heard about George Russell. Russell was in Belleview Hospital in Manhattan with a potentially fatal case of bleeding ulcers. What he could see from his bed near the window was the top of the Time-Life Building, with the “disturbing” (Bley) words Time and Life flashing alternately. I associate these events with what I wrote about Harrell, that he seems to me to have in some sense not been in a hurry either in his career or in his playing. Life Live Time.

In a more prosaic vein:

I will take Phil Schaap’s judgement of Harrell as a good summation: “He has it all – technique, lyricism, beauty and energy.” These assessments from music critics about Harrell’s tone and style were made at different times in Harrell’s career, but I find them completely applicable for these “early” recordings.

The ‘For What It Is Worth’ Department

We are all historians. We all write history in our minds based on the particular data we consume, be it others’ narratives, others’ interpretations, our own sensory intake, etc. In my mind I have come to divide the history of jazz into two halves. The History of Jazz, Part 1, going back to its origins, is that of the great individualists. It takes about two notes to know that you are listening to Louis, to Duke’s men like Bubber Miley, Cat Anderson, Cootie Williams, Rex Stewart, Ray Nance or Clark Terry, to “Sweets” Edison or Roy Eldridge or Dizzy, to Miles, etc.; to Jack Teagarden, to one of “God’s trombones” (“Tricky Sam” Nanton, Juan Tizol, Lawrence Brown), to Al Grey, to Glenn Miller or Tommy Dorsey, to J. J. Johnson, Curtis Fuller, etc.; or, on the instrument I know best, to Coleman Hawkins or Ben Webster or Prez or Dexter or Gene Ammons or Sonny Rollins or Coltrane or Getz, et al.

At least to my non-musician’s ears, beginning roughly around the 70s it becomes gradually more difficult in timbre and in style to distinguish one horn player from another. This is my History of Jazz, Part 2, and to my ears Harrell belongs to this part. Of course this is a huge generality, and huge generalities usually conceal fallacies. But I don’t think this is just me. In fact I believe some have called a certain homogenization the “Berklee effect.” Don’t get me wrong, my son and daughter-in-law are Berklee graduates! To the extent such a transformation took place, there are of course historical and cultural and socioeconomic reasons. The stereotype goes like this, and a stereotype usually conceals a grain of truth: Did you hone your chops in joints and 3:00 am cutting contests and hardscrabble territory bands, or learn to play in the academy?

Harrell is an interesting mix of the two. Already in high school he was a gifted improviser and Bay Area phenom. While in the academy (Stanford) he played all sorts of gigs at frat parties, coffee houses, and the like. Palo Alto pianist Dick Fregulia recounts how Harrell, while a college music student, played at “a classic jazz dive called Easy Street … Originally a convenience store, then a massage parlor and topless dance joint, it evolved for a short time into a bebop-oriented decadent jazz club often featuring Tom with a full quintet.” After the academy, Harrell cut his professional teeth on the road with the Kenton and Herman bands.

I say to my ears, but as a listener I have my own limitations. I mentioned for example not always being able to distinguish between John McNeil and Harrell when listening to Look to the Sky. In general I do better with saxophonists, probably because the clarinet and saxophone were my childhood instruments. But is there something inherent in woodwind vs brass, reed vibration vs lip vibration, key vs valve, or whatever, that makes brass players slightly less distinguishable?

I have my moments, though. I grew up in an all-white suburb of Chicago. Bill was a Black man, probably about fifty years old at the time I knew him. He owned a record store near the Plugged Nickel in Chicago’s Old Town.

In high school I heard many great artists at the Plugged Nickel in Chicago’s Old Town. (What is up with the spelling of names on that marquee?)

It wasn’t much of a store. Bill lived in its dingy basement and drove a cab during the day. I became a jazz fan in my senior year of high school. From the moment my friend Donny introduced me to some Jimmy Smith and Miles Davis sides, the longest and second greatest love affair of my life began. I started hanging out in Bill’s shop on Saturday nights, and on hot summer Sunday afternoons I would stop by on my way to the Plugged Nickel’s underage matinees. Bill and I talked about music, but as we got to be friends, it was more often me listening to him talk about Chicago — if memory serves me, he graduated from Chicago’s famed DuSable High — , its politics and dirty little secrets — he was a shop steward in the cabbies’ union — , and about life. It was for me a formative experience. And Bill got a lot of my hard-earned dishwasher’s money, because I spent most of it on jazz LPs.

Anyway, as I was gradually expanding my universe of artists and genres, I was thumbing through the bins in Bill’s store one night and decided to buy a Blue Mitchell album. Something about Mitchell’s tone struck me, and I remember how proud I was to tell Bill so, because I felt that marked me out as someone whose finely tuned ears extended beyond household names like Dizzy and Miles. (I met Dizzy once in Bill’s place after one of those Sunday Plugged Nickel matinees, but that is another story.) Flash forward decades. I’m somewhere listening to jazz on the radio and, based on the sound and not on any familiarity with the track, I announced to whoever I was with that the trumpet player sounded like Blue Mitchell. It was!

When I google him now, I see the trumpeter Richard Williams has played with all sorts of top tier names. But the only time I remember ever hearing him was on Yusef Lateef’s Live at Pep’s (1965), an album I have probably listened to a hundred times or more. Again flash forward decades and again I am listening to something on the radio. I thought, this is a stretch, but somehow that sounds to me like that trumpet player on Live at Pep’s. And it was!

Which is easier to distinguish, trumpet or saxophone?

So, as I said, I have had my moments. But in general, first of all, I have a harder time distinguishing trumpet players than saxophone players, and secondly, for me at least, distinguishing horn players has become more difficult in what I call The History of Jazz, Part 2. In this regard I contrast Harrell and Clark Terry. This is absolutely in no way a criticism. Terry was a quarter century older than Harrell and a product of the age of individualists. Stuart Nicholson quotes a 1981 Downbeat article saying Terry was once turned down for a booking because, even though he wasn’t going to be the lead, his sound was “too individual.” Nicholson opines that Terry was probably the only jazz musician actively performing in the 80s whose identity could be spotted by just one note.

(Footnote. I just received my (autographed!) copy of award-winning photographer and writer Ken Franckling’s delightful Jazz in the Key of Light. The book pairs a Franckling photo and a statement in the artist’s own words for ninety-nine jazz musicians (including Harrell). In it, Clark Terry recounts how in the Navy he would steal away to the head and study clarinet and saxophone books and then practice licks from those books on the trumpet: “I thought the saxophone was more melodic and flowing for jazz than the trumpet was.” !!!]

<to be continued>

Published by Randy Gibbons

I am retired. I have several strong interests, in particular classical studies (Greek and Latin); a lifelong passion for music, especially jazz; and more recently, dabbling in philosophy. For more information about me, click on About Me.

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  1. I have Tom Harrell at #14 of top 50 Palo Alto jazz tropes. I have another list that is not ranked that goes close to 500 but it, like a jazz tune, skips obit or iterates.
    Dick Fregulia is my best source on Tom.
    I am not sure what it is fair to say about his October, 2019 show here, other than we can do it better next time.

    I asked Tom if he played with the Stanford pep band at basketball games — as Dick said he did — but he said he did not recall that.

    His pianist, drummer and bassist played on without him and later said it was interesting for them to learn on the fly how to do that.

    I had Dayna Stephens play a show here last Monday, free and outdoors at Lytton Plaza and Dayna was only here because he played with Billy Hart in Healdsburg — I drove Dayna to airport to fit it in.


    1. Thanks for your comment, Mark. I have been going through your Plastic Alto stuff on Harrell, including Fregulia’s very helpful program bit of history that Tom rejected! I will be citing you on my next post, which is a few months away (the context for the citation is Gordon Stevens’s Homecoming album).


  2. My other fav trumpet of that era is Jack Walrath…Jack did a tribute to Jerry Garcia here, the head from “Touch of Gray”, in about 2005 in a gallery on corner of Hamilton and Alma; whereas Mads Tolling quartet ripped thru a Robert Hunter tune just last week.


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