Tom Harrell: A Quest. Part 1, Chemistry and Recognition vi (the polls, the songs)

<continuation of previous post and completion of ‘Chemistry and Recognition’>


The Polls

In my Trip through Harrell-land so far, I have listened to and reported on much of Harrell’s recorded music from the earliest LPs in the late 60s to the LPs and CDs through the mid-90s. My most recent “Chemistry and Recognition” posts have covered the period of ~1990-1995, though I have dipped into 1996 and frequently found occasion to revisit the earlier years. “~1990” refers to the following events in Harrell’s career:

  • The final studio recording of the George Robert – Tom Harrell Quintet, Lonely Eyes, which was recorded over two sessions a year apart, April 1988 and April 1989
  • Harrell’s final recording with Phil Woods, Woods’s Real Life, recorded in September 1990
  • Harrell’s final album for Contemporary, Form, recorded in April 1990

In the half-decade transition period that followed, Harrell only recorded two albums as leader, both for Chesky, Passages in October 1991 and Upswing in June 1993. Far from being inactive in these years, however, he mixed (using my chemistry metaphor) with an amazing variety of musicians and musical styles and across an incredible diversity of what I call jazz ecosystems.

Throughout the period of the late 80s and early 90s, I can’t count the number of times I have read one or another variation of musicians and critics and liner note scribes with inside-the-industry knowledge saying “Harrell hasn’t received his due recognition … but he is about to.” When was the “about to” going to happen? After all, in 1996 Harrell was to turn fifty. To be clear, this was not an issue with his fellow musicians. The universal wish to play with Harrell speaks for itself.

The dam finally broke in 1996, at least as judged by the polls.


That year, as you can see, Harrell for the first time topped the Trumpet category in DownBeat, both in the Readers Poll and the Critics Poll. As a matter of fact, that year he also topped the Trumpet category in the JazzTimes Readers Poll . (The JazzTimes Critics Poll at that time consisted of individual critics selecting their top album picks for the year.)

Of course this didn’t just happen out of the blue. Harrell actually first appeared in DownBeat polls in 1977, presumably on the strength of his membership in the Horace Silver Quintet. In that year he and Chet Baker tied for eighteenth place in the DB Readers Poll and he and Jon Faddis each got 18 votes from the Critics in a sub-category DownBeat called Talent Deserving Wider Recognition, or TDWR. (Dizzy Gillespie won the regular Trumpet category with 116 votes.) Phil Woods, by the way, was topping the charts in the Alto Sax category and continued to do so for many years.

And so it went. Harrell reappears in the Critics’ TDWR category in 1978 and then not again until 1983. The Readers vote him between ninth and twelfth place in 1980, 1981, and 1983.

After that, we might say, a rising tide lifts all boats. And that rising tide would be the Phil Woods Quintet. In the Acoustic Jazz Group category, Readers selected the Quintet as third in 1984 and first in 1985 (second in 1986, third in 1987, first again in 1988 and 1989, and second in 1990). The Critics Poll mirrors those results and ranks the Quintet first in 1988, 1989, and 1990. (The prime competition those years in the Acoustic Jazz Group category were Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.) Accordingly, in the Readers Poll in 1986 Harrell moves up to third (behind Wynton Marsalis — the “decade of Wynton Marsalis” had begun — and Miles Davis), and in the 1987 Critics Poll he tops the TDWR sub-category, places seventh in the regular Trumpet category, and gets a thumbnail pic:

That’s the 1987 DB Critics Poll on the left. In 1988 he falls out of the Critics regular category and finishes two votes behind Wallace Roney in the TDWR sub-category, but 1989 reprises the 1987 results. In 1990 he inches up to third in the regular category (again behind Lester Bowie and Wynton Marsalis).

The Readers place him “mid-pack” in the 1987-1990 Polls, fourth, eighth, fifth and fifth, respectively.

In the 90s the Phil Woods rising tide is no longer there (and the Phil Woods Group slips a bit in the Acoustic Jazz Group category), but Harrell holds steady in the Trumpet category. In 1991-1994 he places third in the DB Critics Polls (fourth in 1995) and likewise third or fourth (fifth in 1993) in the Readers Polls.

What about JazzTimes? Until 1993, for individual categories the JT Readers Poll was only showing winners (not very useful, in my opinion). In 1993 they added runner-ups, and the Trumpet category that year went to Roy Hargrove and Wallace Roney, Hargrove and Marsalis in 1994, and in 1995 Hargrove and Harrell.

And then, as we saw, in 1996 the dam broke. Why?

Michael Bloom assessed Harrell as Trumpeter of the Year (Readers and Critics) in the December 1996 DownBeat (it is pictured above if you can read the print). “Tom Harrell is finally getting his due.” Bloom attributes this largely to the muscle a large label (RCA) was able to apply. “In the first half of this decade, Harrell established himself as a leader and recording artist for independent labels like Criss Cross [Moon Alley], Contemporary [Stories, Sail Away, Form] and Chesky [Passages, Upswing]. His success got the attention of RCA Victor, which released the ambitious Labyrinth earlier this year.” Labyrinth was recorded in January 1996 and released soon after. I will be reporting on Harrell’s RCA years in the next segment of my Trip. Ironically, or perversely, DownBeat critic John McDonough only gave Labyrinth three and a half stars in his July 1996 review, and in the accompanying “Hot Box” John Corbett, Jim Macnie, and John Ephland only three stars. Oh well.

I know that Bloom is right and that the support of a major label is a big factor in music poll, just as a major studio is in movie competition. Besides RCA and Harrell’s own superb pre-RCA albums as leader, though, I would like to think people were waking up to Harrell’s ubiquitous and consistently excellent performances as featured sideman (frequently highlighted as such on the album covers) in this 1985-ish to 1995 decade. One suggestion of this comes from the JazzTimes Critics Polls, which as I mentioned above consisted of the individual critics’ picks for best albums of the year (typically around five to ten albums per critic). In browsing through those picks I note, besides Harrell’s own albums, a number of albums we have visited and loved, such as I Remember You (Philip Catherine), Black & Blue (Wolfgang Muthspiel), Real Book (Steve Swallow), The Company I Keep (Art Farmer), Quartets Live at the Village Vanguard (Joe Lovano), and Belief (a 1996 Leon Parker album we will be visiting). Lovano’s Quartets album was also the DownBeat Readers’ Album of the Year in 1996 (fifth in the Critics Poll), which will have helped those 1996 results.


Harrell really blossomed as a composer with Moon Alley, with the pieces he wrote for the Phil Woods and George Robert Quintets, and with the original compositions for his Contemporary and Chesky albums. But through 1995 he never cracks the Downbeat Composer category (the veterans Benny Carter, Henry Threadgill, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Carla Bley, Muhal Richard Abrams, and Randy Weston dominated this category in the 1985-1995 decade). Again in 1996 there was a bit of a breakthrough.

He placed sixth in the Readers Poll, four votes behind Maria Schneider, and second in the Critics’ TDWR sub-category, again behind Schneider. Schneider. Schneider was beginning her monumental rise in this category, and as I write this in late 2021, she has once again won the Readers Poll both for best Composer and for Album of the Year.

Jazz Musician / Artist

I kind of get and I kind of don’t get this category. And I’m not sure I like it, because it smacks too much of a mere beauty contest. But for the record, Harrell pops up in this category also in 1996. Tom Harrell and Joe Lovano came up through the ranks together, and Lovano has justifiably had a smashingly popular career. In 1996, this year of Quartets, Lovano was Musician of the Year (Readers Poll) and Artist of the Year (Critics Poll), and perhaps lifted by that tide, Harrell was eleventh in the former and twelfth in the latter Poll.

The Songs

Song Flowers

As a reminder, this Quest is to find a pretty song (or two or three) of Harrell’s to add to my Horn of Pretty playlist.

And what do I mean by “pretty”? As I previously wrote (see link below), for purposes of my Quest I tried to induce the characteristics of songs my brain regards as “pretty,” and I concluded that, as far as I can tell, they are

  1. The song has a hummable or infectious melody that the musical part of my brain easily remembers, plays back, and, often, turns into an earworm
  2. It is performed at a moderate tempo (in other words, the tempo is not a dominating quality)
  3. In its emotional register it hovers over the surface; it is not too deep or overly emotive
elimination round 1

Following a combination of these analytic criteria and pure subjective feel, I engaged in one previous preliminary round of elimination, keeping in mind again that (1) for Horn of Pretty, which is a multi-artist playlist, I can pick at most two or three Harrell compositions, and (2) this selection process is absolutely not an overall judgement about the songs but rather only a determination about which ones seem to meet my brain’s criteria for “pretty.” My favorite Harrell compositions may or may not be the “pretty” ones. For reference, I repeat here from that previous elimination round the following comprehensive tables of Harrell’s compositions from up to ~1990, with the “winners” highlighted in Red, like The Water’s Edge, and songs I doubted would make the final cut but wasn’t ready to eliminate just yet highlighted in Deep Pink, like Touchstone.

“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 > Song 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

There is one important update here. I had previously eliminated Song Flower on the following grounds: “Song Flower’s title begs for inclusion, but Barbara [Barbara was my partner in the selection process] finds it ‘too mournful’ and I am skeptical the melody is that easily committed to memory.” But now, in addition to Harrell’s original recording on Stories, I have heard this number on Philip Catherine’s I Remember You and on the two piano trio tribute albums from Klaus Suonsaari and Dick Fregulia. I have also listened to Gordon Stevens wax eloquent about it. So, Song Flower, you’re in.

Here are just the winners and (for now) close seconds.

The Water’s Edge, Little Dancer, Gratitude, Bouquet, Weaver, Touchstone, Open Air, Moon Alley, Before You, Because I Love You, Coral Sea, Song Flower, Glass Mystery, Dream in June, Sail Away, Buffalo Wings, Scene, I Don’t Know
elimination round 2

To the above I now add the compositions from the ‘Chemistry and Recognition’ period of ~1990-1995.

Chemistry: CheskyPassages: Touch The Sky, Suite Dreams, Papaya Holiday, Bell, Passages, Lakeside Drive, A Good Bye Wave, Expresso Bongo, Madrigal, It’s Up To Us
Upswing: Upswing, Angela, Train Shuffle, Emergence, Procession, Tune-A-Tune

For two reasons Passages as a whole is not conducive to “pretty.” First, the songs are stories, hence more in the “dramatic” bucket. Second, the conspicuous presence of Café’s percussion, while I might like it, mitigates in my brain against “pretty.” Nevertheless, I have considered two of its compositions. I had written about Bell, “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?” In other words, I was focused on its dramatic qualities. Nevertheless, I find it quite hummable, of moderate tempo, and if “ominous” in part, not too deep. I also enjoyed hearing it on the TanaReid’s (Looking Forward album and on Klaus Suonsaari’s tribute album. It’s in. Second, I also considered Madrigal. But Ken Franckling’s liner notes make the point about the dramatic, “with its sometimes haunting, sometimes elegant sound, bordering on musical poetry,” and furthermore it is just not enough of an earworm for me.

From Upswing one would certainly hope, sentimentally speaking, to include Angela. The song’s structure and tempo may be a bit outside my criteria, but it would be rash to eliminate it just yet. Train Shuffle is infectious2 (that is, infectious squared). It arguably tilts more “swing” than “pretty,” but it’s definitely in. Procession is my brain’s Dictionary Definition of “pretty.”

That leaves the following eight original Harrell compositions written for or at least first recorded on others’ albums (which are indicated in brackets).

Chemistry: non-leaderMore Than Ever [Peplowski, It’s A Lonesome Old Town], Before You [Swana, John Swana and Friends], From This Time, From That Time [Catherine, I Remember You; Escoudé, Cookin’ In Hell’s Kitchen], Romance [Catherine, Moods, Vol. 1], The Carousel [Catherine, Moods, Vol. 2], The Waltz [Catherine, Moods, Vol. 2], Streets [George Robert Quintet, Cape Verde], September [Lee Konitz, Brazilian Serenade]

More Than Ever: I like the chemistry between Harrell and Peplowski’s clarinet and I like the song, it is pleasant and unpretentious. But it doesn’t cross over from pleasant to pretty for me. Ditto for Before You, though it is infectious. Also, I think the Latin element in Before You may be standing in the way. There is a fine line between the gentle bossa nova of Ceora and Sail Away that actually contributes to their being quintessentially pretty, and the more predominant Latin element of Before You and the like.

for From This Time, From That Time. And to be sure I am not overly influenced by the absolutely gorgeous version of Philip Catherine (though why shouldn’t I be?), I have the subsequent confirmation from another great guitarist, Christian Escoudé.

Romance, from Catherine’s Moods, Vol. 1, is a nicely arranged mood, a ballad (and hence with a slow tempo). It probably doesn’t qualify, but I am not ready to dismiss it yet. Same thing for The Carousel from Moods, Vol. 2. I was tempted to “go deep pink” for The Waltz too from Vol. 2, but in this case I am positive the melody is not enough of an earworm for me to survive the competition, so better not to keep her dangling.

I am at the Jazzclub Rheinfelden in Switzerland with a glass of white wine listening to and watching the George Robert – Tom Harrell Quintet. How great is that?! Harrell’s Streets, like all the other numbers in the set, exhibits that special Robert-Harrell chemistry I am so fond of. Late at night Barbara and I walk back on the winding streets to the hotel, happy. But …

I am somewhere in Brazil. I don’t know where or how I got there (perhaps I am in Mark Zuckerberg’s new metaverse, God forbid), but there I am watching Lee Konitz & The Brazilian Band with Tom Harrell play, along with some immortal Jobim compositions, Harrell’s September and Konitz’s Brazilian Serenade. How great is this?! But …

Here then is the expanded list of “pretty” candidates as I prepare to move on to the RCA years in Harrell’s career.

The Water’s Edge, Little Dancer, Gratitude, Bouquet, Weaver, Touchstone, Open Air, Moon Alley, Before You, Because I Love You, Coral Sea, Song Flower, Glass Mystery, Dream in June, Sail Away, Buffalo Wings, Scene, I Don’t Know, Bell, Angela, Train Shuffle, Procession, From This Time, From That Time, Romance, The Carousel

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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