Tom Harrell: A Quest. Part 1, The Phil Woods Years – Other Activity

(my Trip takes me to Tom Harrell’s substantial output aside from the Woods Quintet during the years 1984-1989, places where I might also expect to find candidate songs for inclusion in my “Horn of Pretty” playlist)

Flash, the final Phil Woods Quintet album with Tom Harrell, was recorded in April 1989. The liner notes specify that Harrell appears courtesy of Contemporary Records, and in fact by that time Harrell had already been recording for Contemporary. The Woods Quintet only toured six months in the year, and in the 1984-1989 period Harrell played and composed in a variety of other settings. The ones we’ll visit here have a common thread: Europe.

Criss Cross – Amsterdam to New Amsterdam

New Amsterdam then and now.

Gerry (Geert) Teekens, a one time German professor and drummer, founded the Dutch label Criss Cross (aka Criss Cross Jazz) in 1981. The name refers to Teekens and his crew crisscrossing the Atlantic Ocean several times a year, since the label did recording sessions both in the Netherlands and in the U.S.

Hod O’Brien

Criss Cross has sustained or jump started the careers of quite an impressive list of American jazz artists. One such Criss Cross artist was the pianist Hod O’Brien. O’Brien had played with many jazz notables in the 50s and 60s. Along the way, O’Brien earned a degree at Columbia University studying psychology and mathematics and, from 1969-1974, taught computer programming at New York University. (I overlapped with him. I was an undergraduate at NYU at that time, and though computer programming was the last thing on my mind then, I eventually went on to a career in IT.) O’Brien was the pianist on Chet Baker’s 1984 Criss Cross outing Blues for a Reason and the leader on the 1985 Opalessence (Criss Cross catalog numbers 1010 and 1012, respectively, the label’s tenth and twelfth jazz recordings). In New York, Teekens “had his coat constantly pulled by musicians about trumpeter Tom Harrell” (liner notes to Moon Alley – see below), and Teekens went with the recommendation.

Opalessence has a front line of Harrell and Pepper Adams on baritone sax and a rhythm section of Ray Drummond (bass) and Kenny Washington (drums). The Criss Cross albums are easily recognizable from their cookie-cutter covers, on which a one-time studio assemblage is made to sound like a permanent group, I guess an ego-booster and public relations touch for the leader!

(Harrell’s association with Ray Drummond goes back to his Stanford days. The first time I remember being aware of Ray Drummond was he and Victor Lewis supplying the rhythm for one of my favorite West Coast pianists, Jessica Williams. Opalessence‘s drummer Kenny Washington, also known to me as “The Jazz Maniac” on New York/New Jersey’s jazz station WBGO, was paired up with bassist Peter Washington on many Criss Cross recordings, and in 1997 they recorded All Through the Night with Criss Cross artist Bill Charlap, and thus came about my favorite contemporary jazz trio.)

Opalessence is a straight-ahead hard-bop outing. O’Brien, Adams, and Harrell each contribute numbers (Harrell’s is Touchstone). All the Criss Cross sessions involving Harrell were recorded at the Van Gelder Studios and have excellent sound quality. I especially enjoy the bari-trumpet sound of Adams and Harrell (as I reported earlier, Pepper Adams was my saxophone teacher Michael’s exemplar for the baritone sax). The Adams-Harrell pairing, and the later Gary Smulyan-Harrell pairing (see below), invite comparison with the many Pepper Adams-Donald Byrd sides for Blue Note in the 50s and 60s, a side trip I intend to take. In keeping with its straight-ahead mode, side B of the original vinyl ends with Clifford Brown’s The Blues Walk, and it is a pleasure to compare Harrell here with Brownie on the milestone Clifford Brown-Max Roach recording almost thirty years earlier. I am one-third amused, one-third intrigued, and one-third touched by vocalist and future O’Brien spouse Stephanie Nakasian’s A Handful of Dust, an O’Brien composition put to lyrics by Hal Landesman (“just a handful of dust, that is all we are / and we’ve come from a place in the space between the stars / so a scientist said in the paper today / and it stays in my mind as I see the way we play … but in a stray ray of light the dust can shine like jewel / there is one thing at least we can cling to and trust / it’s the music that springs from a handful of dust”). It has beautiful ballad solos by Adams and Harrell.

Moon Alley

Opalessence was recorded in January 1985. Teekens was back at the Van Gelder studios in December of that year (on the back cover of the Moon Alley LP: “Criss Cross Jazz likes [sic] to thank Hod O’Brien and Stephanie Nakasian for their friendship and hospitality”). This time the mission was to record Harrell as a leader. The result was a career milestone for Harrell, the album Moon Alley. Aurora from a decade earlier (1976) was technically Harrell’s debut as leader, but it was for an obscure label and, capitalizing I imagine on Harrell’s growing reputation in the Woods years, was re-issued under a different title in 1987. Play of Light was recorded in 1982 but only released in 1986 (in fact pianist Albert Dailey passed away in the interim), again perhaps capitalizing on Harrell’s growing reputation. So for many fans, 1985-1986’s Moon Alley was Harrell’s real debut as leader.

A career milestone

Across the top of Criss Cross’s cookie-cutter album cover is emblazoned TOM HARRELL QUINTET FEATURING KENNY GARRETT AND KENNY BARRON. Kenny Garrett, on alto sax and flute, was one of the new generation’s young lions; Criss Cross had introduced him to the world the previous year with Introducing Kenny Garrett, teamed up on that occasion with trumpeter Woody Shaw. Besides the well-known pianist Kenny Barron, also a Criss Cross artist, Ray Drummond was back on bass and Ralph Peterson drums. (I’m sad to learn, as I write this, that we just lost Ralph Peterson.)

Change of Pace is by Kenny Garrett. All other compositions by Harrell. The CD reissue added Scrapple from the Apple from the session.

Moon Alley was intended in the same straight-ahead vein as Opalessence (the CD reissue, for example, ends with Scrapple From the Apple just as Opalessence ended with The Blues Walk). Garrett’s Change of Pace is a nice waltz ballad, and on it Garrett does some lovely flute work. Garrett’s alto sax contributes to the album’s unique flavor. (Dan Cross for AllMusic Review: “The album benefits from the youthful exuberance of saxophonist Kenny Garrett, who colors the music with smatterings of bent pitches and brief dissonances.”)

But it is Harrell’s five original compositions that make Moon Alley especially interesting. Not simply the fact, though noteworthy, that Harrell contributed five compositions, but that the compositions are especially interesting.

“After Phil [Woods] gave me an outlet for my writing, I began combining more modern kinds of harmonies with more traditional forms. A lot of the songs were still 32 bars long but maybe the bar structure would be like ten and six and maybe the harmony would be dissonant. Since then I never underestimate anyone’s capacity to hear. I think everyone has the capability of being really sensitive and also creative…in an audience or in a group …. Horace [Silver] once told me that whenever he writes something he waits until after it’s done to count the bars.”

Tom Harrell, in a 1998 JazzTimes interview with Bill Milkowski

Harrell rarely if ever writes an entirely conventional piece. Among other things, as Harrell notes in his JazzTimes interview with Bill Milkowski, his compositions are often constructed over a non-conventional structure. And Harrell expects something of his listeners (“Since then I never underestimate anyone’s capacity to hear”). In my Trip through Harrell-land, I am trying to be that creative listener. Of course, like everyone else, my starting point with music is simply listening to it and gauging my reaction on the like-indifferent-dislike scale. If I especially like the piece, I may try to understand its structure more precisely. In the case of jazz, that means fakebooks and lead sheets where possible. This was true of The Water’s Edge, Terristris, and Little Dancer from the “early” years, though I didn’t mention it at the time. For example, the initial motif in The Water’s Edge became an instant earworm for me, but my appreciation of the song improved when I saw in Jamie Aebersold (‘Volume 63 – Tom Harrell’) that it is actually constructed over 40 bars and that I could count off the solo choruses accordingly.

In the case of the Moon Alley compositions, Harrell sometimes gives a clue with his titles, like Twenty Bar Tune or the album opener Blues In Six.

I assumed Blues In Six meant 6/8, and I felt I could count accordingly, but I was having trouble getting the twelve bars I was expecting. Lucky for me, I discovered some lead sheets from trumpeter Matthias Bergmann. Blues In Six is indeed twelve bars … of 6/4!

Blues In Six also introduces a ‘thirds’ motif to the album, 3/4 in the case of Garrett’s waltz and Harrell’s Open Air. Open Air, while hummable, is also of unusual structure, if you are counting measures. The slightly mournful title track is also hummable and is in the more conventional AABA format. (I was hoping the liner notes would explain the name “Moon Alley”, but no such luck.) Anyway, for this creative listener, Moon Alley is a unique and thoroughly enjoyable album.

Mike LeDonne

Criss Cross helped sustain the career of the veteran New York-based pianist Hod O’Brien. It helped launch the career of the young New York-based pianist Mike LeDonne, first, with his 1988 ‘Bout Time (‘MIKE LEDONNE QUINTET’), then with his 1990 The Feeling of Jazz (‘MIKE LEDONNE QUINTET/TRIO’). Following on the Hod O’Brien session with Pepper Adams, ‘Bout Time and the quintet portion of The Feeling of Jazz have a front line of Harrell and a baritone sax, this time Gary Smulyan, plus Dennis Irwin on bass and the jazz maniac Kenny Washington on drums. ‘Bout Time has three jazz standards and six LeDonne originals, The Feeling of Jazz one standard, four compositions by other jazz artists, and three by LeDonne. As with Opalessence and Moon Alley, the overall feeling is straight-ahead. The compositions and arrangements are conventional, and both albums are enjoyable listening, the kind of jazz I like to listen to when making the dinner salad.

‘Bout Time. The six LeDonne originals cover most of the bases, namely, the blues (Boo’s Blues), Latin (Olla Padrida), a kind of funky blues (Kelly’s Gait), and bossa (B.P. Bossa, though the bossa in the head gives way to straight ahead jazz rhythm and blowing). The horns sit out on Olla Padrida and Kelly’s Gait. I especially like the treatment of Ellington’s All Too Soon. LeDonne’s fine Dukish intro is followed first by his statement of the theme, accompanied by a lovely unison voicing for the horns, then the horns in turn playing the theme (Smulyan on the bridge) — the only improvisational solo is LeDonne’s. On Hammerstein & Kern’s Why Was I Born we hear Harrell using the Harmon mute for the first time I am aware of since the 1969 Stan Kenton album.

The Feeling of Jazz. Same personnel and format. This time the horns sit out on four of the nine numbers: Ellington’s The Feeling of Jazz, Buddy Montgomery’s Bock to Bock, the standard My Ideal, and Wynton Kelly’s Action. (LeDonne also did an exclusively trio album in 1990 for Criss Cross, Common Ground, with Irwin and Washington.) Milt Jackson’s Blues for Edith is a type of blues I call “them dirty blues” (name borrowed from Cannonball of course — my favorite exponent is Yusef Lateef). Tom Harrell is not the first name that comes to my mind for this kind of blues, but his playing here proves he can play anything, and I get a kick out of it.

The Criss Cross albums are excellent and hold an important place in Tom Harrell’s discography, especially Moon Alley. Teekens passed away at 83, in October 2019. RIP.

SteepleChase – Copenhagen

Not the greatest Harrell album

Let’s start with the sparse information on the back of the LP. The personnel of the Phil Woods Quintet, but with tenor saxophonist Bob Rockwell in place of Woods and with Harrell designated as leader, did a recording session at a studio in Copenhagen in May 1986. The session was for the Copenhagen-based label SteepleChase and was produced by a local SteepleChase team. It was released as Open Air. Let’s then look at Hal Galper’s t-shirt. It says Kainuun Jazzkevät ’86. A little Googling tells me this is the Kainuu Jazz Spring festival in Kajaani, Finland, 1986. So the Woodsmen were doing a northern European tour that spring, and someone decided on this SteepleChase-Copenhagen recording session. The session was five months after Moon Alley, and the album covers look strikingly similar.

(Harrell had appeared on two SteepleChase albums in 1979, Lee Konitz’s Yes, Yes Nonet and Look to the Sky, the John McNeil-Tom Harrell pairing, both recorded however in New York.)

Four of the numbers are Harrell compositions, three familiar from earlier recordings — Terrestris (Look to the Sky), Open Air (Moon Alley, though in KG this song first appears on a no longer available 1978 Ronnie Cuber album), Bouquet (Bouquet) — plus Harrell’s Latin-flavored Before You. The playing seems, frankly, under-inspired. First, it does not take long before you are missing Phil Woods … or a Pepper Adams or a Kenny Garrett. Or why not just a quartet with Tom and his fellow Woodsmen, which you get in fact on Oscar Pettiford’s Tricotism (on the theme statement of which, by the way, we hear Harrell on the mute again) and for all practical purposes on the title track. The arrangements, tempo, and performances of Open Air here and on Moon Alley make for an interesting comparison. I find that especially true of Kenny Barron’s and Hal Galper’s solos. I like both. Since I agree with all of it, I’ll simply quote Dan Cross’s album summary for AllMusic Review: “With the exception of Harrell, who sounds strong and focused throughout, the performances on Open Air are slightly disappointing. Tenor saxophonist Bob Rockwell’s rather technical, calculated delivery contrasts somewhat awkwardly with Harrell’s highly melodic approach. And although the rhythm section is fine throughout, they don’t achieve the cohesive intensity they would often find on many of Phil Woods’ records. Although not a bad record by any means, this isn’t the place to start in Harrell’s discography.”

Contemporary/GPR – The Swiss Connection and The George Robert-Tom Harrell Quintet, with a dash of Italian

Jazz used to be called America’s greatest export, and that has been a source of pride for me as an American. This sometimes took the form of self-exportation in the case of black musicians like Dexter Gordon who found a warmer reception in Europe not just musically but racially. At the opposite end of the political spectrum, in the 50s, 60s, and 70s it sometimes took the form of official U.S. State Department sponsorship. Harrell’s familiarity with Europe began in his Horace Silver days and continued when touring with the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band in the early 80s and then with the Woods Quintet. Woods himself, prior to the formation of his Quartet in 1974, had abandoned the jazz scene in the States and for almost five years resided in Europe, leading the European Rhythm Machine. Europeans in turn got to know and love Harrell and, like Geert Teekens, seek him out.

The other half of this coin is that Europe has spawned some excellent jazz artists of its own. One such was the young Swiss alto saxophonist George Robert. Robert, fourteen years Harrell’s junior, came to the US. in 1980 to study in Boston with the master Joseph Viola (the founding chair of the Berklee Woodwind Department) and then earn a degree in 1987 at the Manhattan School of Music. While in New York, Robert befriended fellow alto saxophonist Woods (some biographies refer to Woods as Robert’s mentor). Presumably through the Woods connection Robert came to know Harrell, and in 1987 Robert formed the George Robert-Tom Harrell Quintet, with Italian pianist Dado Moroni, bassist Reggie Johnson, and Woods drummer Bill Goodwin. Moroni, who also moved to NYC and joined the jazz scene there in 1991, was sixteen years younger than Harrell, so in this congregation Harrell was an elder statesman.

Please, someone, make these available again!

The GR-TH Quintet toured extensively in Europe, Canada, and the U.S. in the years 1987-1989. Their first (studio) album, Sun Dance (1987), was recorded in Switzerland and produced by Bill Goodwin for Contemporary Records in some sort of arrangement with Robert’s GPR Productions. (Fortunately the entire album has been uploaded to YouTube. I was able to find a demo copy of the vinyl, otherwise there seem to be only a few ridiculously priced CD copies available.) Their second album, Lonely Eyes (1989), was the fruit of two studio sessions in Switzerland in 1988 and 1989 co-produced by Goodwin and Robert, this time exclusively for GPR Productions. (Again I was lucky enough to find a used CD copy from a seller in Switzerland, but it is otherwise unavailable except for its seventh track, the Harrell composition Opaling, on YouTube. Hod O’Brien’s Opalessence, Tom Harrell’s Opaling — what’s going on here?) I cannot find a trace anywhere of a third album, George Robert-Tom Harrell Quintet Live in Switzerland 1987-1989, recorded for a Swiss label Jazz Helvet. The Europeans Robert and Moroni forged close personal ties with the Americans Harrell, Goodwin, and Woods, and over the next decade and a half these amigos appear together on records in multiple combinations. From 1991 on, Robert and Moroni also toured and recorded with Clark Terry.

Sun Dance. Robert and Moroni are both solid post-bop players and writers. (To fit the mode, Moroni has some of the jazz pianist’s vocalization à la Oscar Peterson, Errol Garner, Bud Powell and Keith Jarrett.) Sides A and B of Sun Dance have a symmetry. The first and third tracks are Robert compositions, Solad and Cancun on side A and the title track and Vikings’ Theme on side B. In between are the Harrell compositions Moon Alley and Because I Love You. Solad, in traditional AABA form, establishes the band’s post-bop cred. Robert and Harrell are clearly simpatico — nicely captured pictorially on the album cover –, whether in unison, in exchanges, or in collective improvisation. No surprise, Goodwin meshes perfectly. Reggie Johnson’s tasteful bass solo starts off Moon Alley, then Robert on the soprano sax and Harrell on the flugelhorn — lovely all. Robert takes us to Mexico with his fast samba Cancun (why a samba in Mexico?). Cancun ends with Goodwin’s solo taking us back to the repeat of the melody and a coda with an abrupt ending.

On Side B, Sun Dance, in 5/4, has its composer on soprano sax again — more on this composition below. Sun Dance has another great Goodwin solo over Moroni’s vamp (it can’t help but remind me of Joe Morello on Take Five), and it ends with Robert and Harrell in collective improv. This and the following track, Harrell’s Because I Love You, are perhaps my favorites, but really the six selections are uniformly good. The medium-swing Because I Love You is the first romantic-love title I can think of in Harrell’s songbook. It is as close as you can come in Harrell’s book to a traditional 32-bar structure, and in listening to it I almost feel compelled to write lyrics for it myself. The lead sheet for it is available by the way in the brand new Tom Harrell Songbook (2020) from Sher Music Co. (whose lead sheets are provided by Harrell). The band recorded Because I Love You again a month later, and Contemporary Records released that as an alternate take on Visions (which we will visit later). The short, fast Vikings’ Theme was the Quintet’s set closer. It is a Horace Silver-like Robert-Harrell romp. In his 2003 publication The Music of George Robert (now available from Alfred Music), Robert explains that Bill Goodwin nicknamed the band “the Vikings” because all its members were quite tall!

Lonely Eyes. Dan Morgenstern, who wrote the liner notes to both LPs, says of Lonely Eyes, “the music here surpasses the excellence of the quintet’s impressive debut on records [i.e., Sun Dance].” This album again consists entirely of original compositions, one by Moroni, five by Robert, and three by Harrell (Opaling, Visions of Gaudi, Coral Sea). I don’t know if Robert, Goodwin, and Harrell conceived of it this way, but there is an interesting cross-Atlantic cultural exchange going on here. The album cover is a classic-European-style painting, L’Orpheline (the orphan), by Robert’s grandfather, the French painter Henri-Marcel Robert (1881-1961). The American Harrell named Visions of Gaudi after the late 19th – early 20th century Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí i Cornet. My guess is that when the Phil Woods Quintet performed in Barcelona in 1988, Harrell visited Gaudí’s Basílica de la Sagrada Família. Conversely, the European Robert was interested in the American west and had witnessed a Native American sun dance in Wyoming. The Long Trail, Quest for Peace, and Sun Dance (from the earlier album) comprise the three parts, in that order, of Robert’s “American Indian Suite” (the Suite makes a nice baby playlist).

The Long Trail’s Indian motif is immediately signaled by Goodwin’s tom toms. There is a mournful undertone, and I can feel Robert’s reverence for his subject. Anyone who reads about the Trail of Tears can only silently weep at history’s brutality, and I suspect Robert was aware of this history. By contrast, after several hearings I could not hear an Indian motif in Quest for Peace. Yet, oddly, in a few of the chords and in Harrell’s understated voicing, I do hear it when I listen to the Suite as a playlist. I am a big fan of American westerns (including Spaghetti Westerns, just to keep the European theme going), especially those of John Ford. Perhaps my brain is just lazily seeking the stereotypical musical motifs of cowboy & Indian fare it is so familiar with. In any case, Quest for Peace swings. “The melody and the chords may seem complex but the solo section is tailor-made for some great solos!” (Robert). True that. Next comes Harrell’s darkly atmospheric Visions of Gaudi. Harrell has occasion to play this again on another date down the road, so I will dissect it there. The song Lonely Eyes does not fail one’s expectation, because of its title and the orpheline on the jacket cover, of a plaintive ballad. Robert gives us a gentle bossa with Sensual Winds, this time featuring his clarinet and Harrell’s flugelhorn in octaves. Robert’s tribute One for Thad — Thad Jones (another American jazz expat) had passed away in August 1986 — has, as Dan Morgenstern points out, almost a gospel feel to it, and, Robert adds, “a very addictive groove!” Harrell begins his solo with an uncharacteristic slur — it sounds to me like he is intentionally channeling Jones –, and Robert’s exuberant soprano solo follows. Harrell’s swinging Opaling and gently swaying Coral Sea (with some more lovely clarinet work from Robert) almost close out this exceptionally fine album, but not before Dado Moroni’s compositional contribution, Adrienne, featuring Moroni of course, but his solo is followed by an extended flugelhorn-soprano sax duet (whose melody and repetitive figure in the rhythm remind me of Ahmad Jamal’s Poinciana).

It is really an artistic crime that Lonely Eyes and Sun Dance are no longer available.

There is, however, a video of the GR-TH Quintet (with Peter Washington on bass and Louis Hayes on drums) doing a live 1990 television broadcast in Spain. They play Opaling, Because I Love You, Lonely Eyes, Terrestris, and Solad, and, despite its horribly grainy quality, it is in an intimate setting and makes for rewarding viewing & listening. The cameraman gets some great closeups of Harrell, and you can study the intensity and enormous inward concentration he puts, eyes closed, into his solos.

In fact Harrell’s appearance changes in the 80s. The album covers to Moon Alley (1985) and Open Air (1986) still have him wearing a mullet, but that seems to be an anachronism. In the live performance videos of the Phil Woods Quintet going back to 1984, as well as of the GR-TH Quintet in 1990, Harrell has a new look. His still-black hair is now slicked back. He has exchanged his bell-bottoms for double-breasted suits and colorful shirts buttoned at the neck, sans tie. His threads and his tall presence onstage exhibit (a new?) self-confidence. He looks commanding. Stand and deliver. (The Moon Alley photo reveals another sartorial feature of Harrell’s I particularly like, namely, his cool leather jackets.)

I consider it quite remarkable that we had The Phil Woods and George Robert Quintets, each so unique, at the same time. A huge shout-out is due Bill Goodwin as the connecting glue, both as percussionist and as producer. Phil Woods passed away in 2015. George Robert passed away in 2016 after a three-year bout with leukemia. All Too Soon.

Whether it’s Amsterdam (Geert Teekens) coming to New Amsterdam, or the Woodsmen playing in Kajaani and recording in Copenhagen, or Geneva giving us George Robert and Genoa Dado Moroni, or the GR-TH Quintet on television in Madrid, the European connection runs deep.

<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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