Tom Harrell: A Quest. Part 1, Chemistry and Recognition i (Chesky)

We move past the Phil Woods years. My Trip through Harrell-land resumes in its Quest for a “pretty” song (or two or three) for my Horn of Pretty playlist

I noted at the end of my last Trip report that Real Life, the last album Tom Harrell recorded, as a guest, with the (augmented) Phil Woods group, was recorded in September 1990 in New York by Chesky Records; that Form, Harrell’s last lead recording session with Contemporary had happened the previous spring; and that Harrell then also entered into a contract with Chesky. We also noted, in taking stock of Harrell’s career at that point, that he was “still not exactly a household name” (Peter Keepnews, in the liner notes to the 1991 Contemporary release Visions). That is where our Trip resumes.

The element Harrell (Ha) is by any stoichiometric measure one of the most important elements in the Periodic Table of jazz musicians of my lifetime. Post-Woods, Harrell continues both to shine as a pure substance, i.e., as a leader, and to bond as a readily adaptive reactant to form diverse and interesting organic compounds.

Ha as Pure Substance

/ “you can hear the difference”

“I started this company 24 years ago when I was a studio musician. I used to conduct and stood in front of the orchestra. It always sounded great to me, but when we heard all the 50 microphones mixed in, it was terrible. So I thought why not make a company from the conductor’s perspective with one stereo mike — that has been our philosophy ever since.”

David Chesky, 2009, Enjoy the Music.com

David Chesky and his younger brother Norman founded Chesky Records in 1978. In their ongoing quest to make recordings that preserved as much of the live-in-the studio sound (with no overdubbing) of the original event as possible, the brothers had by the mid-90s stopped recording in studios, favoring churches for their livelier acoustics (see here). Harrell’s debut album for Chesky, Passages, was nevertheless recorded, in October 1991, at BMG Studio A in Manhattan. For whatever reason, Harrell’s arrangement with Chesky Records was relatively short lived, extending to only two studio sessions, Passages and Upswing.

Passages

Except that it is for a new label, this album represents in every way an unbroken thread with Harrell’s immediate past (“old wine in new bottle” crossed my mind, but that phrase seems to have taken on a negative connotation, which is certainly not my thought). To wit: Bill Goodwin is the co-producer (along with David Chesky); Ken Franckling writes the liner notes (Franckling had written the liner notes for Stories and will also write the liner notes for Upswing); with the exception of the Brazilian percussionist Café, the musicians — Joe Lovano, Cheryl Pyle, Danilo Perez, Peter Washington, Paul Motian — are familiar from recent Harrell recordings; the compositions, with one minor exception, are all by Harrell, and judging from the opening track, Touch The Sky, they have that Harrell “straight-ahead with a twist” quality I have written about before, in particular the non-conventional structures and dash of harmonic complexity. The minor exception to composer credits is the title track. It is co-credited to Harrell and Perez, but Passages is an unaccompanied Harrell-Perez duet that is by design composition-less (Franckling: “they just started playing and made up a tune”).

According to Franckling according to Goodwin, Harrell conceived Passages (the album) as a Latin recording. Hence Café. You might sense the Latin thing from the opening notes of Touch The Sky, since Café’s presence is an immediately obvious part of the mix. But the ubiquitous presence of the conga in 60s jazz didn’t always mean Latin, and the Latin in Passages is not the hit-you-over-the-head-with-it variety.

As mentioned, Touch The Sky has the unusual structure typical of Harrell. The theme has an A, a B, and a C section, the latter marked “swing” and serving as a marker in the solos (Harrell, Lovano, Perez). The lead sheet in the ‘Straight Ahead Jazz Fakebook’ separately maps out the structure for the solos, and on paper at least I still can’t follow it! No matter, it all swings. After the final solo from Perez the horns play the C section, which ends abruptly with four ascending half notes and a long pause — long enough to fool you into thinking you’re going to the album’s second track — before they return to the A section and repeat the theme, which then goes to a coda that also ends with that abrupt ascending scale.

If you don’t already feel the Latin in the theme of the Harrelly-characteristically-wittily titled Suite Dreams, you certainly do in Perez’s vamp that kicks off Harrell’s opening solo. Cheryl Pyle’s flute follows, then Lovano and Perez. Papaya Holiday is pure fun, and of course Lovano plays alto sax on this one. (If you are wondering what on earth I mean by “of course,” that’s good, it means you are paying attention.) On this Trip I am long past thinking about Harrell’s trumpet influences, but every now and then ‘Brownie’ jumps out at me, and it does on Harrell’s solo here. Before returning to the theme, some nice exchanges with Motian. Bell opens ominously, with some nice percussive touches, and this time the theme and opening solo are played by Lovano on soprano sax. What do the song and the bell portend?

I’ve already mentioned that Passages (the song) is a free-form Perez-Harrell duet (unless you count Perez’s just audible vocalizing as a third voice). Perez starts it off — this one too a little ominously — then there is a pause, then Harrell comes in with his flugelhorn. Other than that it is Perez playing, there is nothing Latin about it that I can detect. It is slow (except for a segment near the end), quiet, meditative, and an effective mood swing bisecting the track progression. Interesting that it is this piece that should lend its name to the album (or is it vice-versa?).

Peter Washington’s bass gets the first solo on the Lakeside Drive. Perez’s solo (the last) is followed by some good interplay between Café and Motian. A Good Bye Wave is the second of two tracks with Cheryl Pyle, whose flute states the theme (in part). Again the song has a dramatic quality (I agree with Franckling’s “plaintive”). You feel it is telling a story. The import of the album title becomes clearer and clearer.

“Laurence Harvey plays sleazy hustler Johnny Jackson, who is always on the lookout for fresh talent to exploit, while managing his hectic life with his stripper girlfriend, Maisie King.” That is the beginning of Wikipedia’s plot description of the 1959 British film ‘Expresso Bongo’. Johnny Jackson discovers a teenage singer named Bert Rudge in an espresso coffee shop and plots Rudge’s career in part by changing Rudge’s name to Bongo Herbert . I was expecting maybe a bongo solo from Café on Harrell’s Expresso Bongo, but he stays within his allotted role as colorist throughout the album. The ‘Straight Ahead Jazz Fakebook’ has the lead sheet for this one too. The theme contains six 8-bar sections labeled A, B, C, D, E, F (C duplicates A except for a rest in the final bar of A, and F repeats E with a variation in the final bar). Lovano, Harrell, and Perez each take two choruses. The rhythm gets especially interesting during Perez’s solo, a feature which, upon close listening, I find on the rest of the album too.

The final two passages are Madrigal and It’s Up To Us, the former “with its sometimes haunting, sometimes elegant sound, bordering on musical poetry” and the latter “a crisp and energetic closer [whose solos] are short and to the point,” to borrow Franckling’s descriptions (though I don’t find the solos in It’s Up To Us noticeably short).

The labyrinth on the cover art of Passages turns out to be prophetic.


1992

Chesky released Passages in 1992, and on June 24 of that year they showcased some of their jazz talent in a live concert at Town Hall (in conjunction with the George Wein JVC Jazz Festival), taped and released as the CD a night of Chesky Jazz Live from Town Hall. For Harrell’s part, he is joined on stage by old friends Phil Woods, Joe Lovano, Jim McNeely, Peter Washington, and Bill Goodwin. Probably because these guys were more familiar with Journey to the Center and Weaver than with the compositions from Chesky’s Passages, that’s what they played, in both cases with solos in the order Woods, Lovano, Harrell, and McNeely, followed by exchanges with Goodwin on the former and a solo by Washington on the latter. There is other nice music on the disc, and I particularly like Woods and Paquito D’Rivera as a clarinet duo on Birks’ Works.

Besides a variety of recordings with Harrell as featured guest which we will visit later, when we consider Ha as a reactive musical element, two others things of note happened in 1992 that we will mention here. First, Harrell and Jon Faddis traveled as co-trumpeters with the New York Jazz Giants that summer, and on August 16 the Jazz Giants played at the Newport Jazz Festival. Fortunately, there is an official video of the entire set.

Besides the trumpet duo, the Giants consisted of Bobby Watson on alto and Lew Tabackin on tenor sax, Mulgrew Miller on piano, Ray Drummond on bass, and Carl Allen on drums. After an apparent rain delay, the band kicks it off with Kenny Barron’s sizzler and festival-appropriate New York Attitude. Harrell and Faddis make for a stark contrast in style, a mix somebody must have had in mind when they cast the Giants in the first place. Faddis’s high notes at the beginning of his solo immediately recall his reputation for sounding very much like his mentor, Dizzy Gillespie. Not that that is a bad thing. Alto saxophonist Gene Quill was walking off the bandstand one night at Birdland when a young man approached him and said, “All you’re doing is playing like Charlie Parker.” Quill held out his saxophone and said, “Here, you play just like Charlie Parker!” (That is one of hundreds of delightful stories from bassist Bill Crow’s wonderful book ‘Jazz Anecdotes.’)

A more relaxed pace follows with Grew’s Tune. I got to hear Lew Tabackin and Toshiko Akiyoshi several times in New York, and it is a special pleasure for me to hear him here again.

Drummond’s bass kicks off Watson’s nifty composition Beatitudes. There are a couple funny moments while the four horns lay down the theme. Faddis enthusiastically blurts out some rather distinct notes and Watson turns to him, alto sax still in mouth, but with what I take to be an approving smile. Judging from this video, I would say Watson had a cheerleader role in the band; before and after 1992, Watson has many credits as an ensemble leader. Harrell takes the first solo. So mellow. So fine. Tutti after the solos, then Drummond bookends it.

It’s all Tabackin in an absolutely gorgeous rendition of the unfailingly gorgeous Chelsea Bridge. The Giants return to a brisk pace with Track 6 to finish the set, Harrell then Faddis taking the first solos — again the contrast couldn’t be greater or more entertaining. The four horns in unison during Mulgrew Miller’s solo and at the end of the piece are a gas. Jazz in the summer at Newport, and for posterity’s benefit professionally videographed — it doesn’t get any better than that. Watson looks like the only one though who’s going to hit the beach right after the set.

If you look carefully at the photo gallery above, you will see Harrell wearing a wedding ring. One week before the night of Chesky jazz at Town Hall, on Thursday, June 18, 1992, to be specific, Tom married Angela. Angela was a Japanese-born science and medicine writer and she met Harrell when interviewing him for a joint Japanese TV and Discovery Channel documentary on creativity and the brain, as recounted by Angela in an interview the Harrells did with Charlie Rose in 2003.

“I think I was drawn to him immediately. He was intriguing. He was mysterious. And it was sort of like unfolding, you know, petal by petal. I wanted to know this person. But the more I knew about him, the more I got to like him … This purity of spirit. He’s a beautiful person. There’s nothing not to like about the guy.”

Angela Harrell, interview with Charlie Rose

Since then, Angela has also acted as Harrell’s manager. (As best as I can piece together, Joel Chriss & Co. — apparently now defunct — had also been handling Harrell’s bookings and continued in that role alongside Angela for a few more years.)


Upswing

Harrell did not go back to the studio for Chesky (this time at MasterSound Studios in Queens) until June of 1993, for the album Upswing. The thread of continuity remained unbroken. As said above, Ken Franckling again writes the liner notes; in this case, he also provides the cover photo of Harrell. Goodwin again co-produces, and this time he is also the drummer. He is joined by Peter Washington and Danilo Perez. Finally, Goodwin and Harrell, keeping it in the family, bring in the two saxophonists who shared the stage with them the year before at Town Hall, namely, Phil Woods and Joe Lovano. Having both an alto and a tenor saxophone lends a distinct flavor to the arrangements, though the overall feel seems quite different from that of Miles/Cannonball/Trane. That is certainly in part because, with one exception, all the compositions are again by Harrell.

When you take into account (1) the presence of Woods, and (2) the name of the title (and opening) track, you can pretty much guess at the album’s overall feeling. Your expectations are immediately met as Woods blows first through three choruses of Upswing, this fast medium swing number — so the lead sheet in the ‘Straight Ahead Jazz Fakebook’. There follows three from Harrell, Lovano, and Perez, followed by a couple choruses in which the three horns exchange fours. The theme consists of sixteen bars, repeated, plus a 4-bar transition. The only Harrellesque “twist” is that the sixteen bars are subdivided, not into 8 and 8, but into 10 and 6 (the 6 varying in the repetition).

Angela is of course dedicated to Angela Harrell. It is a sweet and simple chromatic-scale melody. But if it is a portrait, it is one of energy, for it is at a brisker pace than any goopy love song I would ever write. The theme proceeds mostly in half and whole notes except for an infectious melodic/rhythmic variation in the fourth of its five 8-bar sections (technically, the fourth section is 10 bars). I like to think Harrell is speaking to Angela in that section, but that is undoubtedly just the incurable romantic in me. Woods again solos first, followed by Lovano, Harrell, and Perez, a chorus apiece. I reported for Passages that I found the rhythm got especially interesting in Perez’s solos — both Perez’s own playing, and the interplay with the rhythm section — and I hear the exact same thing on this album.

I’ll get to “pretty” later, but either way Train Shuffle could be my favorite Harrell composition on the Chesky albums. It definitely goes choo-choo, but it is more subtle than the hit-you-over-the-head-that-it-is-a-train-song aspect of the That’s the Blues, Old Man/Happy-Go-Lucky Local/Night Train lineage. Solos are by Harrell, Lovano, Washington, and Washington & Perez. Woods sits this one out.

Emergence is one of Noah Baerman’s top ten Harrell tracks (“this rocking track from his then-new album on the audiophile Chesky label”). The horns state the theme (Woods is back) while Perez and Washington lay down the rhythm vamp, with Goodwin dancing around them, that undergirds the piece. Once again the pater familias takes the lead solo (Franckling: “Woods’ shining moment comes on Emergence“), followed by Lovano, Harrell, Perez, and Washington.

Time’s Mirror is the lone ballad on Upswing. We heard it first in 1986 on the Woods-Harrell album Gratitude. I rejected it as a “pretty” candidate because, achingly beautiful, it is therefore too emotive (that is, it fails one of my brain’s apparent criteria for “pretty,” that it “hover over the surface and be not too deep nor overly emotive”). Once again it is here achingly beautiful. According to Franckling, Harrell penned Joe Lovano’s passionate opening solo on the spot. (Woods also sits this one out.)

Goodwin is quoted in the liner notes as saying the version here of Ornette Coleman’s Blues Connotation (from This Is Our Music on Atlantic) — the one non-Harrell composition on the album — is “more of a bar band version [i.e., a traditional 12-bar structure that more than connotes the blues] than the free jazz tune [Coleman] intended.” In mood it could not make a more dramatic contrast to Time’s Mirror. Woods the channeler here especially appropriately gets the opening solo again, followed by Lovano, Harrell, Perez, and Goodwin.

The 16-bar, 3/4 time Procession is another simple and beautiful Harrell melody. (At least I count 16 bars, followed by a 2-bar sostenuto. For this album I was able to find lead sheets for Upswing and, from Jamey Aebersold, Angela and Train Shuffle.) The opening and closing arrangement is lovely: After a brief intro from Perez, the three horns play the theme in unison; they repeat with Woods given lead voicing; Harrell plays a variation of the first 8 bars; finally, they repeat with Lovano given lead voicing, which blends beautifully into Lovano’s opening solo. Woods comes on quoting Willow Weep For Me, then Harrell. One of the things that made the Phil Woods Quintet with Tom Harrell so interesting was the complementary but contrasting styles of Woods and Harrell as improvisers. For me that certainly comes out here. Solos follow from Perez and Washington. Danilo Perez is not the least attraction for me on these two Chesky albums, and if I were producing a small combo album, Peter Washington would be my go-to bassist, in 1992 and still today almost twenty years later (I’m thinking especially of the Bill Charlap trio). The opening arrangement is repeated at the end and bookended with a coda from Perez and a bass note of resolution and finality from Washington. Procession: an irresistibly hummable and easily remembered melody, one that hovers over the surface and is not too deep or overly emotive (it proceeds, you might say), played at a rolling, moderate tempo. Hmm.

Finally, according to Franckling’s liner notes, Tune-A-Tune “explores unusual harmonics and tonal relationships that interest Tom at this musical junction.” This is only the second time (after Train Shuffle) that Harrell takes the lead solo, followed by Lovano, Woods, and Perez. This is another song title I would love to quiz Harrell about. Is it to be understood as ‘Tune, simply a Tune’? Or does “A” have anything to do with the key signature (whatever that may be)? Or does it play on what you would hear if someone just told you the title, namely, ‘Tuna-Tune’? (I doubt the latter!)

While the Chesky albums represent an unbroken thread connecting Harrell’s present with his immediate past, they have their own special chemistry, individually and taken together.

  • Hacomposer/player + (Joe Lovano + Cheryl Pyle + Danilo Perez + Peter Washington + Paul Motian + Café) → Touch The Sky, Suite Dreams, Papaya Holiday, Bell, Passages, Lakeside Drive, A Good Bye Wave, Expresso Bongo, Madrigal, It’s Up To You
  • Hacomposer/player + (Phil Woods + Joe Lovano + Danilo Perez + Peter Washington + Bill Goodwin) → Upswing, Angela, Train Shuffle, Emergence, Time’s Mirror, Blues Connotation, Procession, Tune-A-Tune

Did you hear the difference?

For reasons I do not know, this was Harrell’s final recording with Chesky, and he did not return to the studio with another label, as a leader, until January 1996. That hardly means, however, that he was not active in the intervening time.

<continued in the next post>

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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