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

Contemporary – Harrell as Leader

As we reported earlier, Tom Harrell’s contract with Contemporary Records straddled his departure from the Woods Quintet. After Contemporary/GPR Productions’ Sun Dance with George Robert, Harrell made three important albums with Contemporary as leader, all produced by Bill Goodwin. Two of these preceded the final Phil Woods Quintet album (Flash, April 1989): Stories (January, 1988) and Sail Away (March, 1989). The third, April 1990, was Form.

(Note: Contemporary Records was bought by Fantasy Records in 1984, which continued for a while to use the name Contemporary. The Fantasy catalog was sold in turn to Concord Records in 2004. Some reissues and publicity about Contemporary recordings therefore use the name Fantasy or Concord.)

Recording sessions of the Phil Woods and George Robert Quintets, and of Harrell as leader on Contemporary

These were studio sessions, intended to give full scope to Harrell’s own writing and arranging. They each employ a different and equally outstanding collection of A-list musicians.

“I’m gonna miss the Phil Woods band. I’m really sorry to leave. But I wanted to spend more time writing and thinking about a concept. Phil made me more aware that I have a gift. He made me see my talent in a little better perspective. I feel it would be good if I try to use it to the fullest, in terms of writing as much as I can and practicing.”

Harrell, in liner notes to Sail Away


I have to say I find Stories’ black and white album design, as it appears full size on the vinyl, spooky! The shadows are downright menacing, as if from an old German Expressionist horror film. Harrell, in a characteristically dark outfit, looks like he could be the villain.

Ken Franckling (who has generously shared his memories with me and who has an excellent jazz blog) says in his liner notes for Stories that this is Harrell’s first major label album as leader. I might take minor exception to that by recalling Moon Alley — I don’t know about its revenue, but certainly in its place in jazz history I think of Geert Teekens’s Criss Cross as a “major” label. Be that as it may, the album is a major event in Harrell’s career.

Notably, Harrell plays flugelhorn exclusively on Stories. Besides his old H Silver bandmate Bob Berg on tenor saxophone, Danish citizen and Berklee-educated Niels Lan Doky on piano, Ray Drummond on bass, and Billy Hart on drums, he uses John Scofield’s electric guitar on several tracks. “We always play acoustic jazz,” George Robert proudly told Dan Morgenstern. “Phil, Bill, and I”, says Steve Gilmore, “were never influenced by fads, or by the different kinds of music that came in and out of style.” But Harrell came from a different place and was open to all sorts of possibilities. In fact Scofield’s guitar is one of my favorite things about the album.

All the compositions on Stories are Harrell’s, and they are all interesting. On Rapture, the album opener, Berg has the opening solo. His a-bit-out-there style, though not unlike Kenny Garrett’s, plus Hart’s more pounding drumming style give this version of Rapture a harder edge than that on Moon Alley, where drummer Ralph Peterson focuses more on the Latin groove. The mood changes on track #2, the ballad Song Flower (Song Flower, The Mountain, and Viable Blues were written specifically for this session). Berg is barely present. Harrell’s playing is simply gorgeous. The mood and tempo on track #3, The Mountain, with its insistent drum beat and catchy melody, is somewhere between Rapture and Song Flower. Side A of the original LP ends with The Water’s Edge, by now a Harrell staple. It gets a new flavor with the addition of Scofield.

The mysterious theme of the thirteen-and-a-half-minute Story promises adventure. It strikes me it may have been written with Scofield in mind, as the theme folds into Scofield’s opening solo. Great work all. Viable Blues, closing out the original LP, leaves the heady stuff behind and has us snapping our fingers from the first bar. It is a straightforward 12-bar jazz blues with standard chord progressions, with two minor exceptions. First, it is actually constructed over two 12-bar sections, with a slight variation, and second, its closing bar does not resolve to the tonic. Despite these Harrell twists, it is nevertheless, well, … a viable blues! I have to say it again, I really dig Scofield on this. They are all great. I’m a sucker for the blues, and this is a good one.

Touchstone, originally heard on Opalessence, was added to the CD version. Ken Franckling’s liner notes for Stories begins by saying “There is a touch of melancholy to Tom Harrell’s horn playing and the songs he writes, particularly his beautiful ballads. The mood is more wistful and pensive than one of outright sadness.” I find Touchstone to be a perfect example of that.

Had it been up to me, though, for an added track I might have opted for the more exotic Suspended View, which had to wait for Visions. Suspended View to my ears is written and arranged in purer Harrellese. Its ABA theme is played in unison by Berg (on soprano sax) and Harrell, followed by a two-chorus Drummond solo on bass. Harrell and Doky follow (Berg does not solo). Drummond and Hart mix it up and keep it interesting throughout.

Sail Away

This album has an interesting history. Its title track is perhaps Harrell’s best-known composition.

Habent sua fata libelli, they say of ancient texts. So with modern-era audio recordings. The six numbers on the original LP version of Sail Away — again, all the writing is Harrell’s — were Eons, Glass Mystery, Dream in June, Sail Away, Buffalo Wings, and It Always Is. Original Jazz Classics, an imprint of Fantasy Records, reissued this album in 2003 on CD, adding two previously unreleased tracks from the two-day recording session, Dancing Trees and Hope St. But by January 2014, when he posted his Top Ten Favorite Tom Harrell Tracks, Noah Baerman was incredulous that this album was no longer in print (it is now). By the time of the digital version of this album in the Apple catalog, two more tracks had been added, April Mist and Visions of Gaudi, though these had been previously released on Visions.

Further complicating the matter, though this was evidently by design, the two days of recording (Stories, Sail Away, and Form were all recorded at the A & R Studios in Manhattan) had different personnel. The rhythm section — Adam Nussbaum on drums and Drummond again on bass — and pianist James Williams were present both days. But the front line was Harrell and tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano on the first day, Harrell with Dave Liebman on soprano sax and Cheryl Pyle on flute on the second. On the second day, evidently pleased with Scofield’s guitar previously on Stories, Goodwin and Harrell also added John Abercrombie on guitar and guitar synthesizer.

Side A

Nussbaum’s drums kickstart the album. They introduce and propel the whiplash melody and fast tempo of Eons. This arrangement hints at the album’s non-conventionality (James Williams: “I liked that [Eons] was one of the more challenging tunes I’ve ever had to learn for a date”). Am I hearing correctly that the theme of Eons is in 11 bars (5-6, repeated)? Eons is the only song on the album for which I haven’t managed to find a lead sheet. I can count off the solos accordingly, Harrell’s five choruses followed in businesslike fashion by Lovano, Williams, and Nussbaum, the solos abruptly capped by a perfunctory, we’re-outta-here restatement of the 11-bar theme minus repetition.

Just as Stories changed the tempo and mood starkly from Rapture to Song Flower, so here from Eons to the quiet, gently flowing, magically titled Glass Mystery. Glass Mystery is 32 bars, but AB1AB2, not AABA. Lovely solos by Lovano, Harrell, and Williams.

The third track, Dream in June, is from the second day’s session, with Dave Liebman on soprano plus John Abercrombie’s guitar. Dream in June is altogether different. Its innocuous title belies its unusual structure and voicing (thanks to Matthias Bergmann’s web site once again for lead sheets to Glass Mystery and Dream in June). Williams’s piano and Abercrombie’s guitar lay down a 4-bar vamp which Williams propagates while Liebman’s soprano plays the theme. Section A is two eight-bar halves with slight variation; B is an eight-bar bridge. Repeat vamp-A-B. Bergmann’s notations indicate that Abercrombie is unison-voiced with Liebman in section A and Harrell with Liebman in section B, but my imperfect ears are straining to hear anything but Liebman. The four-bar vamp again by Williams and Abercrombie constitutes a section C that is followed by a closing section D, a descending eighth-note pattern that begins with two measures in 5/4 time repeated three times and resolves with two bars back in 4/4. Then, Bergmann says, “Solo on Form.” God bless the musicians who can do that! Jazz is a very underappreciated art form. So repeat the vamp and voilà we’re off with Harrell’s two-chorus solo, with funky comping by Abercrombie. Liebman begins his solo with a nervous burst and man, he is off the charts! Abercrombie solos. Restate theme, underline with Nussbaum’s emphatic drums, fade out. A knockout.

Side B

Now relax a moment and flip the record over to Side B. What you hear is perhaps Tom Harrell’s best-known composition, and it probably plays a significant role in the universal characterization of Harrell as “lyrical,” as both player and composer. Sail Away is a gentle, elongated fifty-six-bar bossa nova which, in mood and in the image the title evokes, reminds me of the Brazilian singer Maysa’s O Barquinho. The lead sheets (from both Jamie Aebersold and the ‘Straight Ahead Jazz Fakebook’) divide it into seven eight-bar sections (A,B,C,D,E,F,G). This is also from the second day of recording, but Liebman sits out. As with Scofield on Stories, one of my favorite aspects of the Sail Away album is Abercrombie’s guitar. Harrell introduces the melody in ABC, Abercrombie takes over on the bridge sections DE. Harrell joins him on the descending quarter notes in the last two measures of E, and in unison they repeat the main melody in FG. There is a one-chorus solo, with Nussbaum now lightly tapping out the bossa on the cymbals; Harrell plays A-D, Abercrombie E-G. Repeat the theme with the original division of labor, and end with the coda’s ascending motif. Does the sailing ship disappear beyond the horizon, or come back to harbor at the end of the summer day as in O Barquinho?

Buffalo Wings is a — dare I say it? — tastily swinging 8+8 (repeated)-8-bar or ABABC theme laid down by Harrell and Lovano. Section C’s volume and rhythm crescendos have a climactic function, and throughout the piece rhythm patterns from Drummond and Nussbaum add dramatic color as Williams, Harrell, and Lovano blow through these sections twice each.

The also swinging but faster-tempo It Always Is is, as it always is on this album, unusually structured. Its main idea is to alternate between ‘Swing” (and Nussbaum really does swing) and a 4-bar bass-piano “Latin” vamp. The lead sheet from ‘The New Real Book 3’ divides the piece into three sections. Section A is 12 bars, the last four of which are the Latin vamp. B is 11 bars, marked “Swing,” but again the last four bars are the Latin thing. Melodically, B repeats A with some variation, and in solos B is played as 12 bars. C’s 8 bars of modulated key and walking bass (“Swing”) serve as a bridge to the solos. Harrell and Lovano play this structure only once, so we get to the (three-chorus) solos quickly, beginning with Lovano, then Harrell, Williams, and Drummond. The coda at the end is marked “Vamp, solo [Harrell and Lovano collectively] & fade.”

The Extra Tracks

Now it is time to switch to the CD player or your streaming service to hear the extra tracks, beginning with the two on Contemporary/Fantasy’s CD reissue. They are both from the second day’s session. Harrell experiments again with composition and arrangement on Dancing Trees, which features Cheryl Pyle’s flute. There are no bass and drums. Dabs of guitar add color. Pyle plays the theme, repeated, then Harrell, Pyle, Abercrombie, and Williams play understated solos. Pyle restates, and tutti in the out chorus. Simple, lovely.

Hope St. is another melodically and harmonically simple minor theme. After an 8-bar intro, its structure is 8-8-8, or, harmonically, 8–4/4–2-2/2-2. It features Liebman’s soprano sax for the theme and first solo (I think by himself in the first repetition of the theme and joined by Harrell in the second), followed by Harrell, Abercrombie, Williams, and Drummond. Hope St., which wasn’t even on the original release, is one of Noah Baerman’s ten favorite Harrell tracks: “Why is this album not in print? Totally ludicrous. This hard-driving track is almost arbitrary [i.e., as a favorites selection] in that, like the album above [Moon Alley], I love every cut on this record.” Ditto.

The two-day Sail Away sessions yielded an abundance of great tracks. As we said before, April Mist and Visions of Gaudi first appeared on Contemporary/Fantasy’s Visions in 1991 and are now also included with Sail Away in the Apple Music catalog (my streaming service). The main motif of the Latin April Mist (from the Lovano session) is 8-8, repeated, followed by an 8-8 bridge and a restatement of the main motif. I.e., it is AABA, but the sections are 16 bars. Harrell, Williams (a shoutout to his work on the entire album), and Lovano solo, the horns repeat theme, and there is a triumphant finale.

Last but not least is Visions of Gaudi from the Liebman-Abercrombie session (Visions of Gaudi for the GR-TH Quintet album Lonely Eyes was recorded exactly a month later). Visions of Gaudi is, according to the lead sheets (as supplied to the publishers by Harrell), a bossa nova, although Williams’s 4-bar vamp in the intro sounds to me like a tango, and there is a dark, brooding aspect overall to this minor piece that I also associate with tango. On the other hand, Dan Morgenstern, in his liner notes for Lonely Eyes, calls Visions of Gaudi a “relaxed samba,” so there you have it. In the account of my visit to Lonely Eyes, I hazarded the guess that Harrell visited Antoni Gaudí’s Basílica de la Sagrada Família when the Phil Woods Quintet played in Barcelona. The unorthodox structure of Harrell’s composition matches the basilica’s sui generis Gothic/Modernisme català architecture. The 10-bar theme (A1) — the 4-bar vamp is tacked on to A1 but not played in the solos — is repeated with variation (A2). In this 10-bar theme, the final two bars do something funky with the rhythm that I can’t describe but which mirrors the jutting articulations of the Gaudí architecture and makes counting tricky (for me). Section B is 8 bars; the 4-bar vamp is tacked on in the theme, and this is extended to 8 bars in the solos. Liebman plays the theme (I think! – again my imperfect ears are not always sure of the voicings) but does not solo. Williams and Abercrombie, who plays guitar synthesizer for additional idiosyncratic coloring, and Harrell solo. The theme is repeated and leads to a coda with a descending scale, rest, and final note or fermata that makes me suddenly feel like I have been dancing and that I should now be bowing to my bossa … or tango … or samba partner.

fragments and notations

“I want my music to reach people, but I still want to try to experiment with it as much as I can, with the materials that are out there. I think it’s possible to do both.”

Harrell, in the liner notes to Sail Away

I am not a musician, but I am musically literate, and I like occasionally reading a classical score, the sheet music for a standard from the American Songbook, or a jazz lead sheet. Per Harrell in the above quote, if it required a lead sheet to appreciate his pieces, he would have failed in his goals. On the other hand, if in music notation I can spot a nuance or see a structure that I then hear with greater clarity, I am honoring Harrell’s request to be a creative listener.

In any case, I find musical notation, like mathematical notation, fascinating. Musical notation is a Rosetta Stone, and I enjoy the process of interpreting it. Also, my academic training is in reading Greek and Latin. Reading a lead sheet is akin to reading the Iliad in the original language. It forces the concentration.

And it isn’t an accident that I was able to find lead sheets for almost all the songs from the Sail Away sessions. Harrell’s compositions were making waves. In 1994 Jamie Aebersold dedicated a volume to Harrell. The ‘Straight Ahead Jazz Fakebook’ of 1999 included nine Harrell compositions. This was an incredibly fertile period. Think about this: Sail Away was recorded March 22-23, 1989. That April, in the same studio, date uncertain, the Phil Woods Quintet recorded Flash. April 24-25, at the Radio Suisse Romande Studio in Lausanne, Switzerland, the GR-TH Quintet recorded the second session of material for Lonely Eyes. That is quite remarkable.

“Right now, I’m having trouble keeping up with the flow of ideas. I’ve got so many fragments stored up. I guess I need to develop the ideas more. I’m trying to get my filing system more together, to organize the fragments.”

Harrell, in the liner notes to Sail Away


Form (April 1990) was to be Harrell’s last recording for Contemporary. It was also the first since Flash, his final recording with the Phil Woods Quintet.

For this session, Goodwin and Harrell assembled another stellar crew: 23-year-old Danilo Perez on piano, the longstanding rhythm ecosystem of Charlie Haden (bass) and Paul Motian (drums), plus Joe Lovano and Cheryl Pyle again (the latter on flute for January Spring).

Harrell had played previously with all these musicians except Perez. As a matter of fact he had recorded just four days earlier with Charlie Haden & Paul Motian as part of the Liberation Music Orchestra.


Before we finish the Contemporary story by diving into Form, let us divert our path and look at some additional recordings from this period 1987-1991, with reference to the map below.

Italy, 1987 / Chet Baker

In July of 1987 the Phil Woods Quintet was touring in Italy, as evidenced by two tracks from the Italian record label Philology. First, there is a track on a Chet Baker CD called Unusual Chet – Naima, Vol. 1 on which Baker plays Hal Galper’s catchy blues Mr. B. with the members of the Phil Woods Quintet minus Woods at a club in Modena.

A rare photo (thanks to my friend and Harrell discographer Klaus Gottwald) and a rare opportunity to hear Baker and Harrell play together

Baker plays the theme and solos first, followed by Harrell, Galper, some trumpet exchanges, then Gilmore and Goodwin. To my ears there is not much to distinguish the styles of Baker and Harrell on this one. At the conclusion Baker acknowledges Goodwin, Gilmore, Galper, and “Tommy” Harrell to an appreciative audience. (By the way, the whole Italy+jazz+Chet Baker scene is entertainingly captured in the movie The Amazing Mr Ripley.)

[July 2021 Update: I have since read Jeroen de Valk’s biography of Chet Baker. Chronicling the drug-related ups and downs of Baker’s playing in his final years — Baker died in May, 1988 –, de Valk says of this evening (p. 195), “On July 20 [1987], back in Europe [from a successful tour in Japan], [Baker] sounds lucid but in bad trumpet-shape at a gig with Phil Woods’ rhythm section in Modena, Italy. Luckily, Woods’ trumpeter Tom Harrell sat in.”]

(An historical footnote: Mr. B. was the title track of an album Baker did in 1983 for Wim Wigt’s Dutch label Timeless. Wigt and Criss Cross’s Geert Teekens made frequent use of recording engineer Max Bolleman’s Studio 44 in Monster, Netherlands. In 2018 Bolleman published a history of the studio called Sounds. I have just read it and it is fascinating and full of juicy tidbits, including frolics from this particular 1983 Baker session. In an earlier part of this Trip report I visited an album Dizzy Gillespie Meets Phil Woods Quintet recorded “at a studio in Holland.” I said I could not find any information about the circumstances of this session, and I surmised that it must have been quite a thrill for Harrell to play with one of his boyhood idols. Now I have Bolleman’s account. The session was done for Timeless in behalf of a Japanese producer who wanted a “name” trumpeter that his target Japanese audience would recognize. Bolleman describes the session in exquisite detail, and I don’t want to give much of it away, so I will just provide this quote: “During the session, Tom watched Dizzy with a mixture of fear and awe. Dizzy, in turn, listened very intently to Tom’s playing.” Wigt and Teekens frequently brought Bolleman to New York for their recording sessions there (check out Bolleman’s hilarious account, in his Introduction, of his first encounter with the not-so-nice Rudy van Gelder!). We will encounter Bolleman again, now that I know who he is. For his Mr. B album Baker used Philip Catherine on guitar for one track, and Philip Catherine is another person we are going to meet in Harrell-land.)

Philology also put out a 2-CD album called It Happened In Pescara 1969-1989, a collection of tracks by major American jazz artists from the annual summer jazz festival in the Abruzzo. One of the tracks is the Phil Woods Quintet playing Harrell’s Opaling that same July at the 1987 festival.

Jim Hall

In one respect, 1988’s Jim Hall Trio featuring Tom Harrell: These Rooms (for Denon, Harrell courtesy of Contemporary Records) may be the best album of this period.

Did someone say Tom Harrell is lyrical? The slim format of Hall’s subtly-played, moderately-amped, by its nature chord-limited guitar with only bass (Steve LaPina) and drums (Joey Baron) — no piano, no competing horn — is a perfect vehicle to showcase Harrell’s lyricism. Herb Wong gets credit for the idea. The album is a carefully prepared mixture of the American Songbook (With A Song In My Heart, Where or When, Darn That Dream, My Funny Valentine — Harrell sits out on the latter two); Ellington’s All Too Soon (Hall alone); three excellent Hall compositions — the 24-bar blues Cross Court (a tennis match), the calypso Bimini (Hall’s St. Thomas), and the intriguing These Rooms (the only track on which Harrell plays trumpet rather than flugelhorn) –; a ballad by Hall’s wife (Something Tells Me) that is performed as a Harrell-Hall duet; and the album’s closer, a Harrell composition From Now On (inspired, according to Harrell in Herb Wong’s liner notes, in part by the Jim Hall-Bill Evans collaborations, in part by Dizzy Gillespie’s Con Alma, and in part by “the way Benny Golson uses certain sounds”).

Hall’s These Rooms is written in three sections (“Bartok influenced my linear writing; he was my hero”) and written specifically for Harrell. Between the song’s title and the album cover art, I don’t know what “rooms” meant to Hall, but once I started wondering about that, I could not stop my brain from playlisting. “Room” songs that my brain immediately pulled from storage: the Beach Boys’ In My Room, Willie Nelson’s Hello Walls, Elvis Costello and Diana Krall’s The Girl in the Other Room (playlisting leads to research, and later I discovered Room With No Number, In Another Room, and John Sebastian’s The Room Nobody Lives In), and Os Mutantes’ Panis et Circenses (“as pessoas na sala de jantar”).

This album has been one of my favorite stops on the Trip.

Serbo-Afro — Larry Vuckovich, West Coast

As I have said before, I find it not humanly possible to listen to every album Harrell has appeared on. As if playing in the Phil Woods and George Robert Quintets and knocking out albums like Stories and Sail Away weren’t enough, Harrell continued to be in high demand by many artists, especially it seems by pianists and vocalists, for their studio sessions. Studying KG, I have had the urge to create a push pin map of every music studio in the NYC metropolitan area that Harrell recorded in. It must set a record.

In addition to NYC, though, Harrell made a couple trips back home to San Francisco. Fellow San Franciscan Larry Vuckovich brought Harrell out for his Latin American-themed album Tres Palabras, recorded in August 1989 at the Coast Recorders studio in San Francisco for Concord. This was also an opportunity for Harrell to reunite with Pete Escovedo from their Azteca days (Escovedo plays percussion along with Eddie Marshall on drums and Larry Grenadier on bass — listen to Harrell and Escovedo’s exchanges on Oswaldo Ferres’s Spanish classic, Tres Palabras).

I say fellow San Franciscan, but Vuckovich was born in Montenegro, where he first heard jazz on Armed Forces Radio and Voice of America. Vuckovich continued his studies in jazz when his parents moved to San Francisco in political asylum from Tito’s Yugoslavia. His is another fascinating chapter in the remarkable story of jazz as a cultural bond between post-war America and Europe, and it is nicely encapsulated in the title of the album opener, Vuckovich’s Serbo-Afro. (You know you are in for a Harrell treat from his triumphant opening four measures, which sound very much to me like the accompaniment to a bullfight). Harrell’s main role on the album is to supply the all-important brass element on the Spanish numbers; he plays on the following tracks: Serbo-Afro, Historia De Un Amor, Ah Se Eu Pudesse, Blues in the Night, Tres Palabras, Rio.

“I’d guess it must be quite a treat for you to work with Tom Harrell again. He was also on that City Sounds, Village Voices recording of yours, right? [correct, 1981] But that was still a few years before he turned himself into one of the three or four most dynamic and accomplished trumpet men in the business. Dynamic and demanded, I should say. I mean, this guy shines in contexts ranging from Phil Woods’ quintet to Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra. The two of you sound great together. Like scotch and soda.”

Neil Tesser, in the liner notes to Tres Palabras, written in the form of a “Dear Larry” letter

Charlie Haden and the Liberation Music Orchestra

And speaking of Charlie Haden and the Liberation Music Orchestra (LMO) … Just four days before the Form session, Harrell, along with Paul Motian and Joe Lovano, played in the LMO’s studio recording Dream Keeper. And on July 8 of the previous summer, they had all participated on the eighth and final day of a tribute to Charlie Haden at the Montreal Jazz Festival, a day celebrating the LMO. Verve released a series of CDs from those days called The Montreal Tapes.

While this Trip is a Quest for a “pretty” song from Tom Harrell, it has led to some enjoyable unplanned excursions. On one of these excursions I have taken the opportunity to fully explore Charlie Haden and Carla Bley’s liberation music and to blog about it separately.

Here I will just say that I am in so many ways all in with Charlie Haden, from Ornette and Keith Jarrett to the LMO to Beyond the Missouri Sky and Rambling Boy and everything else in between. I am also a country music fan, dating from my discovery of it on the radio in Cincinnati while in school there in the early 70s. More broadly, I love the whole breadth of American roots music. I am fond of artists who get it, like, to name just a few, Haden, Bob Dylan, Bill Frisell, and Norah Jones. This is the Midwestern in me. In this regard I think of Harrell more as the pure embodiment of bicoastal jazz.

On The Montreal Tapes (which Verve did not release until 1999), Harrell is featured on Haden’s composition Sandino. And I think he may switch half way through from trumpet to flugelhorn. This is all informed speculation, since the liner notes don’t specify. There is another trumpeter, Stanton Davis, in the assemblage. One reason for the speculation is that Harrell is the accredited soloist on Sandino on the Dream Keeper album of the following year and again in a live performance of the LMO in 1993. (In turn I am guessing that Stanton Davis is the soloist on the you-gotta-hear-this rendition of We Shall Overcome from The Montreal Tapes.)

Dream Keeper is a multi-part suite that interweaves liberation music from El Salvador (Feliciano Ama), Venezuela (Canto del Pilón), and the Spanish civil war (Hymn of the Anarchist Women’s Movement) with Dream Keeper Parts I-IV, written by Carla Bley to the words of a Langston Hughes poem, As I Grew Older. Harrell’s work on Feliciano Ama is as pure as rain, and his brief solo on Dream Keeper Part IV brings the suite to a quiet and somber conclusion. Harrell plays the same parts on the bootleg CD Live 1993.

Ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, Μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, …. Like Odysseus, I on this Trip cum Νόστος have had to be resourceful, because much of the music is difficult to find. I was able to find a used copy of the Dream Keeper CD for example through the Discogs marketplace from a seller in France. Similarly I got George Robert’s Sundance as a demo vinyl from a seller in Switzerland, and some of the Bob Brookmeyer and Mel Lewis & The Jazz Orchestra recordings are only available in vinyl. These are just examples. For me it is in a way part of the adventure, but it is a real cultural crime that so much great music is no longer generally available.


Besides the two LMO albums, Harrell had played with Joe Lovano on the latter’s 1988 Village Rhythm album and on pianist Allen Farnham’s 1989 album Fifth House. Lovano was to continue being an important star in Harrell’s universe for the next half decade.

Back to Form

So now let us steer the ship back to Form. Form also has a history, or more accurately, the tracks from the recording session habent sua fata. The CD as originally released consists of five Harrell compositions, Vista, Brazilian Song, Scene, January Spring, and Rhythm Form, plus one standard, For Heaven’s Sake. Two other quite lovely Harrell compositions from the session, I Don’t Know and Autumn Picture, make their appearance on Visions. Finally, this recording session was in April (1990). I don’t know what induced the boys to record The Christmas Song in April, but they did. Perhaps they were having fun with the seasons motif — January Spring, Autumn Picture, Vista, Scene. Whatever, somehow The Christmas Song showed up in 1993 on a collection of Christmas songs by miscellaneous jazz artists on Milestone Records.

As the title suggests, Form continues the saga of Harrell’s experimentation with unusual structures. This is even suggested by the fonts in the album’s cover design, and it is confirmed by Neil Tesser’s liner notes. Vista starts us off with an unusual 40-bar structure (12-12-8/8), repeated and followed by a 6-bar bridge to each solo (to boot, the first two bars of the bridge are in 3/4). The two-chorus solos come from Harrell, Lovano, and Perez, topped off with some collective improvisation by the two horns. My transcription of Harrell’s solo (‘Tom Harrell Trumpet Transcriptions Vol. 1’ from Blue Mounds Publications/qPress) labels the song “Latin.” I wasn’t particularly hearing that, but from the start I was hearing Paul Motian’s drumming making this number rhythmically interesting. It occurred to me listening to Vista in the car the other day, that if I was asked to make a one-word association with the song, it would be “tectonic.”

Sticking with the Latin theme and with unusual forms, the samba Brazilian Song is structured 12+2-12+2-25. The opening solo is given to the Panamanian Perez, whose vamping provides a signpost to each of these sections.

Scene is one of Noah Baerman’s top 10 favorite Harrell tracks, “a crowning example of Harrell’s renowned lyricism both as a trumpet player and a composer.” It again has an unusual structure (8-12-18), but that is concealed by its overarching and beautiful simplicity. Keeping it simple, Lovano, Harrell, and Perez each take a single chorus. The slow, fading sostenuto in the final bar leaves me with that wistful feeling we all have had, that we have just experienced beauty for a brief moment in time that cannot be recaptured.

How much brilliance can you have in a single album? The paradoxically titled January Spring picks up in mood exactly where Scene leaves off. Neil Tesser describes it as a “long and moody tone poem,” and in his opinion it is the crown jewel of the album. Cheryl Pyle’s flute is a major part of the atmospherics. She plays the first iteration of the first, 12-bar part of the two-part statement. This part advances through a progression of time signatures (4/4, 2/4, 3/4). In the distinctly different 9-bar second part, the flugelhorn joins to play a descending, haunting, fluttering motif. What is above all unusual about this piece, however, is that the solos do not follow this structure but are freely improvised. The horn and piano solos — Harrell, Pyle, Lovano (Perez dropping out), Perez — are undergirded by the Haden-Motian essence, and this progression logically culminates with the horns and piano dropping out and Haden switching from support role to brilliantly executed solo before the two-part statement is reprised.

I want to thank Pete Estabrook for his assistance with January Spring and Rhythm Form. On an album where form is of the essence, about which I prefer my understanding to be as precise as possible, I would have felt deficient without it. And Pete tells me most of the credit for his transcriptions in turn goes to none other than Charlie Haden, who lent Pete his bass book! Rhythm Form is a sly title. Yes, it is based on the famous “Rhythm” harmonic changes, but it is done so in a rhythmically ingenious way. While adhering to the standard AABA format (preceded by a 3-bar intro appropriately kicked off with a single tap by the rhythm keeper Motian), the statement alternates between 3/4 and 4/4, with a 2/4 measure to boot at the end of the first two A’s and a 5/4 measure in the coda constituting the end of the final A. In a zillion years my rhythmic sensibility would have never cracked that code! The solos, however, are all in 4/4. It cooks.

Interestingly, the album and the Contemporary sessions end with a standard in good old AABA form, For Heaven’s Sake.


After four dynamite albums, the first with the George Robert-Tom Harrell Quintet, and then Stories, Sail Away, and Form, Harrell for whatever reason left Contemporary. In March of 1991 Contemporary (at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley) had Bill Goodwin assemble eight previously unreleased tracks to produce the farewell album Visions. These are not scraps. They are first-rate compositions and performances that there just wasn’t room for on the original LPs, some of which I have already described.

  • Opaling, Because I Love You (alternate take), and Everything I Know from a recording session the GR-TH Quintet did in Switzerland in 1987 several weeks after the session that produced Sun Dance (to my knowledge this is the only place in Harrell’s discography that you will hear Everything I Know)
  • Suspended View from the Stories session
  • April Mist and Visions of Gaudi from the Sail Away session
  • I Don’t Know and Autumn Picture from the Form session

I Don’t Know is, according to the lead sheet I got from Nate Weiss’s website, a bossa nova. I am not hearing the bossa (Peter Keepnews in his liner notes for Visions describes it as “softly rocking”), but in any case it is a pretty theme built on a simple four-measure motif. Danilo Perez’s piano plays this motif twice by way of an intro, then the horns play it twice by way of an 8-bar section A in an ABC construction. Section B is an 8-bar bridge. Section C gives us the usual unusual in Harrell’s compositions for these Contemporary albums; it is 7 bars, the first three of which vary the key and the final four of which are the simple motif again. Each soloist takes two choruses of this ABC structure, beginning with Cheryl Pyle’s flute, then Lovano on soprano sax, Harrell, and finally Perez. After the theme’s restatement, there is a nicely arranged outtake, Harrell’s horn floating over a group that is reduced in size at the end as Haden drops out and Motian adds his characteristically delicate touch.

Autumn Picture is a mournful ballad played extremely slowly. It is a 19-bar theme with a (to me) complicated chord pattern, the 10th bar being an ever so brief interlude in 3/4 marked ‘N.C.’ (No Chord; the lead sheet is from Sher Music, and the bass part is also written out). Lovano is on soprano sax again, and he states the theme until Harrell takes over in the fourteenth measure. Solos by Lovano, Harrell, and Perez.

Never Say Goodbye

I have called this period of Harrell’s career a “transition.” In fact he appears as a guest in September 1990 on Real Life, the second and final recording of the Phil Woods octet Woods called The Little Big Band. We described the earlier recording, Evolution, in an earlier segment of this travelogue. The musicians are the same on Real Life, except that Jim McNeely has taken over from Hal Galper on piano. Harrell’s contribution isn’t just his horn; three of the tracks are his compositions Sail Away (featuring Hal Crook’s trombone), Bouquet, and Viable Blues.

Real Life was recorded at the RCA Studio A in New York and released by Chesky Records. The brothers David and Norman Chesky had started the audiophile label Chesky Records in 1989 (its first three jazz recordings were by Bucky Pizzarelli, Clark Terry, and Phil Woods with Tommy Flanagan). Once again Harrell seems to have followed Woods’s lead, because after Contemporary he moved on to Chesky.

Taking Stock

This has turned into a very long Trip! I need to dock the ship, restock my provisions, and chart my future course. It is also a good time to pause and to reflect on what I have seen and heard and learned so far in Harrell-land, in my Quest for a “pretty” Harrell song.

Fame and Glory

“If Tom Harrell, after some two decades in the jazz business, is still not exactly a household name …

Peter Keepnews, liner notes to Visions

The musicians all knew it. So did the jazz critics and the knowledgeable journalists. Tom Harrell was one of the best — some would say the best — trumpeters on the scene. But the scribes unfailingly felt compelled to observe that, as Dan Morgenstern wrote in the liner notes to 1987’s Sun Dance, “[Harrell is] surely one of the most underrated and underpublicized trumpeters of our time.” Two more years of touring and recording with the Woods and George Robert Quintets, further exposure with name artists like Jim Hall, outstanding albums in his own name on Contemporary, the release in 1986, finally, of Play of Light and reissue in 1987 of Aurora (as Total!) — by 1989, in his liner notes for Lonely Eyes, Morgenstern could say that “[Harrell] finally seems to be getting some of the credit long due him as one of the most original and consistently excellent creative improvisers of our time.”

Nevertheless. Why? Obscure labels or ineffective distribution? Late entry on the scene as leader? Widely diverse settings that made him difficult to pigeonhole? Subdued stage presence? Being a member of what Peter Keepnews called the “lost generation of jazz musicians,” born too late to be associated with the Colossi who were present at the birth of bebop and too early to be among the widely heralded Young Lions?

What’s In a Name?

In the universe of composed music, jazz composition is sui generis, and I have always thought the titles jazz composers give their songs reflect their composers’ unique genius (my all-time favorite: Blues and The Abstract Truth). This is especially true of Harrell, who clearly puts some thought into his titles. They range from the witty and sly (e.g., Viable Blues, Rhythm Form) to the tongue-in-cheek mundane (e.g., Twenty Bar Tune), to landscapes and seasons and nature (e.g., Coral Sea, Dream in June, April Mist), to the psychological and autobiographical (e.g., Gratitude, Mood Swings), to the mysterious or paradoxical (e.g., Glass Mystery, January Spring), to the abstract (e.g., Play of Light), and beyond.

What does his title tell us about the song’s inspiration? In his mode of composing, which more often comes first, the composition or the title? How do the pieces evolve? (Brookmeyer described his compositions as developing a life of their own and taking him along for the ride. I suspect Harrell might say the same.) Is Harrell’s own imaginative process sui generis?

Song Flowers

This Trip is a Quest for a “pretty” song, and by now there is a ballooning repertory of highly original compositions to choose from. Before I Sail Away again, I think it would be a good idea to undertake a preliminary process of elimination.

Let me first make one thing crystal clear: “Pretty” is not a value judgement! It is just an aesthetic category my brain has somehow come up with. It may end up overlapping a bit, but really it has nothing to do with what I might regard as “the best” or as “my favorite” Harrell compositions.

When writing music, Harrell makes associations with objects in his internal and external universe. When listening, I also make associations. Along the way — I don’t know when or from what experiences — my brain has created this idea of “pretty” music, and of its own volition my brain associates certain pieces of music I am listening to with that notion. This phenomenon isn’t restricted to jazz. I, or my brain, regards, for example, Erik Satie’s Trois Gymnopédies and The Flamingos’ I Only Have Eyes For You as exquisitely pretty. For present purposes, however, I limit myself to jazz. As I said at the outset, my Horn of Pretty playlist was inspired by Lee Morgan’s Ceora. It included 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, Woody Shaw’s The Moontrane and Rosewood. And then I thought of Tom Harrell.

To begin this culling process, let me begin by simply inventorying Harrell’s compositions up to this point in his career (and apologies if I inadvertently omit one or two, which is almost inevitable):

“Early” yearsOn the Roof, The Water’s Edge, While There’s Time, Aurora, Outdoor Café, Terrestris, Little Dancer, Play of Light, The Boulevard, Mood Swings, Blue News
With the Phil Woods QuintetOccurrence, Gratitude, Time’s Mirror, Bouquet, Journey to the Center, Weaver, Rado
Other activity during the Phil Woods yearsTouchstone, Blues in Six, Rapture, Twenty Bar Tune, Open Air, Moon Alley, Before You, Because I Love You, Visions of Gaudi, Opaling, Coral Sea
TransitionSong Flower, The Mountain, Story, Viable Blues, Suspended View, Eons, Glass Mystery, Dream in June, Sail Away, Buffalo Wings, It Always Is, Dancing Trees, Hope St., April Mist, Vista, Brazilian Song, Scene, January Spring, Rhythm Form, I Don’t Know, Autumn Picture, From Now On
The candidates

For convenience, I created working playlists for each of these periods and have listened to them many times. With the minor exception of a few early numbers about which I am indifferent, I like each one of these songs a great deal. “Pretty” or not, each is a gem .

How to characterize these songs as a whole? What makes a Harrell song a Harrell song? The front cover of the ‘Straight Ahead Jazz Fakebook’ (1999) defines “straight ahead” as being one of or some combination of these four things:

  1. of or in the standard idiom or style; unmodified
  2. playing in a positive, forceful manner
  3. a straightforward approach to playing jazz in the hard bop style
  4. leading directly to a destination; undeviating

I would characterize Harrell’s compositions (thus far) as “straight ahead with a twist” (Straight, With Twist – a lost Monk composition?). They are in the standard jazz idiom, that is, they are written in the typical jazz idioms of bop, hard bop, post bop, Latin, blues, ballad, etc., and are designed as melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic frameworks for improvisation. They are not esoteric, programmatic, obscure, or part of some theory of composition. However, they are rarely if ever simply “standard.” They have a non-conventional structure, harmonic subtlety, or other aspect that mark them as unique. Collectively, as reflected in their titles, they make Harrell-land an especially interesting place to be.

For purposes of my Quest, I have tried to induce the apparent characteristics of the songs my brain regards as “pretty.” From what I can tell, the song must have a hummable or infectious melody that the musical part of my brain easily remembers, plays back, and, often, turns into an earworm. It is performed at a moderate tempo. It hovers over the surface — it is not too deep or overly emotive.

So which of the songs meet this definition and qualify for potential inclusion in the Horn of Pretty, and which ones fall out and must be content with simply being gems? Barbara joined me for this portion of the Trip, and we had fun doing this over much of the 2020 pandemic Thanksgiving weekend. Our tastes in music are blessedly compatible — call it a fifty-year mind meld — but she has the poet’s sensibility and expressiveness. The exercise is a little tricky, because we are trying to gauge our brains’ reactions without prejudicing them (call it quantum physics!). But here goes:

“Early” yearsOn the Roof, The Water’s Edge, While There’s Time, Aurora, Outdoor Café, Terrestris, Little Dancer, Play of Light, The Boulevard, Mood Swings, Blue News

Our brains’ candidates are The Water’s Edge and Little Dancer. We hesitated over Terrestris. It certainly has a hummable melody, but it seems the tempo is too fast.

With the Phil Woods QuintetOccurrence, Gratitude, Time’s Mirror, Bouquet, Journey to the Center, Weaver, Rado

Our brains picked Gratitude, Bouquet, and Weaver. Not only is the pace of Weaver right and its melody, though not simple (it is woven), infectious, but Tom, the way your solo begins is killing us. Time’s Mirror is achingly beautiful, but as such too emotive.

Other activity during the Phil Woods yearsTouchstone, Blues in Six, Rapture, Twenty Bar Tune, Open Air, Moon Alley, Before You, Because I Love You, Visions of Gaudi, Opaling, Coral Sea

Moon Alley and Because I Love You are our unequivocal picks. Opaling is too peppy (not that that’s a bad thing, don’t get us wrong!). Some of the songs our brains are on the fence about, but for now we have decided to spare them from possibly premature elimination. These are Touchstone (Barbara: “the melody has a note of discord, of discontent”), Open Air (we are not sure why our brains are hesitating), Before You (Barbara is a definite yes, but I am having a hard time playing it back), and Coral Sea (again we’re not sure the melody is hummable enough, but Tom’s playing and George Robert’s clarinet are gorgeous). Listening to Visions of Gaudi is like being on an adventure, and I have concluded that my brain has another aesthetic category, which I will call “dramatic.”

TransitionSong Flower, The Mountain, Story, Viable Blues, Suspended View, Eons, Glass Mystery, Dream in June, Sail Away, Buffalo Wings, It Always Is, Dancing Trees, Hope St., April Mist, Vista, Brazilian Song, Scene, January Spring, Rhythm Form, I Don’t Know, Autumn Picture, From Now On

Especially with the Contemporary albums, Harrell really came into his own as a writer, as can be seen from the sheer quantity of songs from what I have called the “transition” period. We have placed Story and Suspended View, as you might guess from their titles, in the “dramatic” category. Glass Mystery and Dream in June overlap with the dramatic category but are unambiguously pretty. As is Sail Away, which is a touch wistful, not unlike Morgan’s Ceora, which started this whole business. Its title might not suggest it, but sure, why not Buffalo Wings? On the other side of that coin, Song Flower’s title begs for inclusion, but Barbara finds it “too mournful” and I am skeptical the melody is that easily committed to memory. It Always Is is in the peppy category. Dancing Trees is intriguing; it seems to be asking questions; it requires more focused listening than a “pretty” song would. Hope St. is urgent (hope for what?), “apprehensive” (Barbara). April Mist and Brazilian Song are dominated by their Latin rhythms (not that being Latin is disqualifying). Scene makes the cut for sure. And though our brains had to work with it a bit to convince ourselves it was hummable, we initially said yes to January Spring, but on final reflection I I find it too sui generis. I Don’t Know — our first reaction was “we don’t know.” Is the melody hummable enough? Yes, we decided, and the flute seemed to help. Autumn Picture is extremely meditative and more like a tone poem, and From Now On is another one we rejected without being sure why — we decided it proceeds too episodically.

The following songs, then, may proceed to the next round of competition!

The Water’s Edge, Little Dancer, Gratitude, Bouquet, Weaver, Touchstone, Open Air, Moon Alley, Before You, Because I Love You, Coral Sea, Glass Mystery, Dream in June, Sail Away, Buffalo Wings, Scene, I Don’t Know

< 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.

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: