Tom Harrell: A Quest. Part 1, Rhythm and Innovation: The RCA Years, i

At the end of 1995, Tom Harrell signed a contract with RCA Victor. Over the period 1996-2003 he recorded five studio albums for Victor plus a live appearance at the Village Vanguard. Intriguing studio titles like Labyrinth, The Art of Rhythm, and Time’s Mirror promised exciting new adventures on my Trip through Harrell-land in my Quest for a pretty song or two to add to my Horn of Pretty playlist. I wasn’t disappointed.

New World Order

I have already reported that the start of the contract with RCA coincided, perhaps not coincidentally, with a breakthrough for Harrell in the jazz polls. He was part of what the DownBeat critics in 1996 dubbed the “New World Order.” Note that in this new world order percussionist Leon Parker is also singled out as a TDWR (Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition). That is a convenient hook to Rhythm. Rhythm and Innovation are two themes of these RCA years that I will highlight.

Leader: Labyrinth

Overall, my previous posts have covered Harrell’s recording career in chronological order, but in the particulars I have often opted for sub-groupings by artist, instrument, or ecosystem over strict chronology based on recording dates. I have also freely allowed myself to backtrack (“old business”) whenever in hindsight I found it unacceptable to omit certain artists or albums from the account. By contrast, for these RCA years I am going to proceed more strictly chronologically, to get a more “day in the life/month in the life/year in the life” perspective. I will chart the journey in maps, one per RCA album. Each map shows Tom’s subsequent sideman recordings up to the point in time of the next RCA album. Harrell’s first RCA album is Labyrinth, recorded in January of 1996.

As indicated by the check marks, in the case of this particular map it happens that I already dipped into 1996 in a recent post and already covered a few of these albums, namely, Lee Konitz & The Brazilian Band’s Brazilian Serenade, the Tribute To The Legacy Of Woody Herman, and Helen Merrill’s You And The Night And The Music. (In the interests of strict bookkeeping, in that same recent post I also covered the recording of She Moved Through The Fair which Harrell did with The King’s Singers. This record is not shown on the map but seems to have been recorded sometime in 1996.)

I talk about Innovation, but Labyrinth is not a radical departure. It is a transition album, comparable to Integrity (the first Phil Woods-Tom Harrell Quintet recording), Moon Alley on Criss Cross, and Stories on Contemporary. On the Innovation scale Labyrinth is more modest in ambition than, but nevertheless predictive of, the four RCA studio albums to come.

Four of the ten tracks are played in the standard quintet format by Harrell’s working band at the time, and all the members are familiar from earlier recordings, namely, Don Braden on tenor sax (The Time is Now and others), Kenny Werner on piano (Joe Lovano’s Village Rhythm and a French recording, see below), Larry Grenadier on bass (Larry Vuckovich’s Tres Palabras, Wolfgang Muthspiel’s Black & Blue and in & out), and longtime drummate Billy Hart (Play of Light, Stories, Joe Lovano Quartets Live at the Village Vanguard, and many others).

However, five of the ten tracks augment the quintet (again with familiar musicians) and show Harrell itching to experiment more in the sounds of different instrumental combinations. The additional musicians are Joe Lovano, Gary Smulyan on bass clarinet (Harrell’s hornmate in the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra and on the Mike LeDonne albums for Criss Cross, among others), Steve Turre (a significant voice on Don Braden’s Wish List), Leon Parker on percussion (David Sanchez’s The Departure) and, on two of the augmented tracks, Rob Botti on oboe. 5 + 4 = 9. The remaining track, the standard Darn That Dream and the one non-Harrell composition on the album, is performed as a duet with Harrell on flugelhorn and … Harrell on piano!

New label, old management: According to the liner notes, Harrell’s longtime agent Joel Chriss is still handling Harrell’s domestic, Angela (Harrell) his international bookings.

One other name from this period deserves mention. With the notable exception of Max Bolleman and his Studio 44 in Monster (The Netherlands), I have rarely noticed or mentioned the sound engineer for Harrell’s recordings. Joe Ferla was the recording engineer for Labyrinth, for three more of the RCA studio recordings, and for several of the sideman albums Harrell is on in this period. He is an important part of the Harrell ecosystem and sound and shouldn’t remain an unsung hero. If you are interested, get a glimpse of him at work for another excellent trumpet player (Dave Douglas) and check out his amazing set of credits.

As I said, as I traveled through this part of Harrell-land, two themes jumped out at me, Harrell’s desire to stretch out as a composer and as an arranger, which I will abstract out as Innovation, and a special fascination with rhythm. Two of the musicians on Labyrinth, Kenny Werner and Leon Parker, strike me as particularly interesting in this regard. And as has happened to me repeatedly on this Trip, I ended up taking side excursions to Werner-land and Parker-land.

Innovation: Kenny Werner

New or used, vinyl or disc, from the U.S. or from other parts of the world where jazz has spread its tentacles, I have managed to get my hands on most of the almost innumerable recordings Harrell has made. A hugely disappointing exception is a live performance Harrell and Kenny Werner did on April 26, 1991 at Les Alligators Club in France along with American-born, Germany-resident bassist Paul Imm and French drummer André Ceccarelli. The album, done for a French label called Musidisc, is titled Sail Away , and that is a little misleading, since it invites confusion with Harrell’s identically-named classic album on Contemporary. That aside, this Sail Away sailed away; its fate is put starkly by Discogs: “This CD is long out of print, as Musidisc is defunct” — without a used copy anywhere to be found. I am especially interested in this record because Harrell and Werner perform live some of my favorite Harrell compositions from the Phil Woods/George Robert/Contemporary years, namely, besides Sail Away of course, Gratitude, Glass Mystery, Coral Sea, and Buffalo Wings. In fact, after my latest process of elimination, each one of these compositions remains a candidate for my Horn of Pretty playlist!

You can’t always get what you want. But for purposes of hearing Harrell and Werner together, and in France to boot, there is some compensation is this French television broadcast of an excellent 1997 set in Marciac. It’s a great opportunity to see as well as hear these two along with bassist Dennis Irwin, drummer Yoron Israel, and a hard-blowing, to me sometimes Eric Dolphy-sounding Bennie Wallace on tenor sax. As the Quintet lays down the theme of Ornette Coleman’s Blues Connotation, a dubbed-over sonorous French male voice introduces the video with a brief sketch of Tom’s career (at least I understand “Woody Herman,” “Horace Silver,” and “Phil Woods” in French!). In a nice piece of editing, the announcer finishes, the music takes center stage, and the camera cuts to Werner just as he takes off into “the Space.” (In the remainder of the video, after Blues Connotation, they play The Night Has A Thousand Eyes and Wallace’s Fresh Out.)


Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Bix Beiderbecke, Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, Jelly Roll Morton, Scott Joplin, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Bud Powell, Bill Evans, Ornette Coleman, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane. Can we agree that this is a fair representation of the tradition of jazz? What do these people all have in common?



Kenny Werner, in the front matter of his 1996 book Effortless Mastery

“The Space” (not to be confused with Sun Ra’s “Space Is the Place” … though maybe … hmm …) is where you end up when you have learned to let your ego go; when, in magical moments at least, you have achieved Effortless Mastery, the title of a popular book by Kenny Werner (the full title is Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Master Musician Within). Werner published this book in the same year in which he played with Harrell on Labyrinth (1996). Meaningless coincidence? Or can I read something into the trumpet as Werner’s choice for a chapter ornament ?! I ask that kiddingly, but I do wonder if Werner ever shared his thoughts with Harrell.

Effortless Mastery is part autobiography (“just a Jew from Long Island, New Yawk”). Based on Werner’s personal evolution and on his work as a teacher, the book is a meditation-based guide to help other musicians unbottle their innate creativity. The book ended up having an appeal to non-musicians too. Hear Werner tell it in an interview with one such non-musician. Catering to this broader appeal, Werner has just published (2021) a follow-up book called Becoming the Instrument: Lessons on Self-Mastery from Music to Life, where the instrument isn’t necessarily a musical one.

Werner and me

As one such non-musician, I find these books interesting. I say “interesting,” because in my case I’m not looking for help. To get into them, I admit I had to overcome a deep-seated resistance that wells up inside me whenever I start seeing too many words like “ocean of consciousness,” “infinite creativity,” “spirituality.” New Age bullshit is my first reaction. But Werner’s preface to Becoming the Instrument puts all that to rest.

As far as it relates to me, the books dovetail with an inchoate theory I have about myself, a theory I call “the theory of rigidity.” This rigidity is not a characteristic I despise in myself and am trying to overcome, just one I am trying to understand as an exercise in self-knowledge, mostly in the spirit of amusement. Here are some manifestations of this rigidity:

  • I was a pretty decent wrestler in high school, but my relative success was achieved strictly on the basis of muscle. It fascinated me then and still does, how skinny Ron Johnson, in the 103-pound weight class, every afternoon in practice managed to wrestle rings around me, the Blue Demons’ muscle-bound entry in the 119-pound class. In American sports lingo, the equivalent to Werner’s space is “the zone.” When Ron wrestled, he was in the zone.
  • How did I, a reasonably gifted student growing up, manage to so “not get,” and early on conclude that I couldn’t “do”, math? Yet as an adult I overcame my fear of math (and it was actual fear). I managed to learn math at the level of Calculus, certainly not with “effortless mastery” — I do not think numerically or geometrically — but I am in awe of, and to some extent can now appreciate, mathematics as the most brilliant and abstractly beautiful achievement of the human mind. Werner has a lot to say about fear. With psychological insight, he probes for what inhibits “the master musician within” (in a sequence of chapters titled “Fear, The Mind And The Ego,” “Fear-Based Practicing,” etc.). Likewise my inchoate theory is exploring the many and insidious ways in our childhood in which what should simply be “I don’t want to’s” become “I can’t‘s.”
  • By contrast, I was always a successful student of ancient and modern languages, at least in the estimation of others. Yet in hindsight I have concluded that, with the exception of high school Spanish, when I innocently and playfully reveled in trying to sound like a Mexican (Puerto Rican, Venezuelan, …), the way in which I learned other languages as an adult, both in a classroom and as an autodidact, was sometimes prohibitively rigid. The process of achieving fluency in a second language is similar to that of achieving mastery in music (is music a second language? …). As with scales and harmony and elementary rhythmic patterns in music, you must learn the grammatical rules of the target language, its “shoemaker’s lasts,” in the striking metaphor of the famous polyglot and simultaneous translator Kató Lomb. But in both musical development and language acquisition there can be a “drill” mentality that can lead to a paradoxical result: the more you master the “lasts,” the less you get to a creative “flow” in your playing or speaking or reading. In her delightful and thoroughly non-academic pamphlet Polyglot: How I Learn Languages, which, like Effortless Mastery, can be read for pleasure even by those not engaged in learning a language, Lomb offers a “primitive” equation for success in language learning: Invested Time + Motivation divided by Inhibition = Result (notice that “good at languages,” a phrase she eschews, is not a factor in this equation). According to Lomb, inhibition is caused by fear of making mistakes and by being consciously aware that you are transferring the structure of your native language to the new one (the curse of adulthood). Sounds very much like improvising by thinking through the changes.
  • Professionally, I ended up being an IT consultant (on large projects with large teams). On one long-term, out-of-town assignment (i.e., I was a “road warrior”), I took up the tenor saxophone to resolve the problem of boredom in the evenings. I found a local teacher. We pursued a conventional path (I think we used the Rubank Elementary textbook) to regain my fingering (I had played clarinet and fooled around on the saxophone as a kid), learn scales and the like, and acquire a passable tone. My next gig was in Boston, and I wanted to stick with the saxophone. By sheer luck I found Bill. Bill grew up in Harlem, worked at Berklee, taught at a Music School in the evenings, and knew jazz inside-out. My intention had been to pick up where I left off in the Rubank exercises, but my first night standing outside Bill’s practice room while waiting for his previous lesson to finish, I could see and hear his young student gamely improvise his way through the changes to Girl From Ipanema. I walk in, we acquaint ourselves, and Bill asks me what I would like to do. I tell him I had been planning to continue with intermediate exercises, but what I would really like to do is what that young kid you just had was doing. He asks me to play some scales and stuff so he can gauge my level, and then tells me to just play whatever comes to mind using only the notes of C major. Finally, he suggests I buy a Fake Book and learn the melody to Polkadots and Moonbeams for my next lesson. I was visibly ecstatic that this was actually happening to me, and Bill saw that I knew quite a bit about jazz, more importantly, that I was really in love with it. Well, Bill and I quickly became good friends, but despite his best efforts, I could not even get to first base improvising. I wasn’t terribly bothered by this, as this was just a hobby and my day job required most of my energy. But I also concluded that I would have to overcome something fundamental in me if I were to ever learn to improvise at even an elementary level.

And on and on I could go. Thank you, Tom, for once again suggesting to me on this Trip other fascinating avenues of exploration, even if you didn’t know you were doing so.

Werner and Harrell

“If you look at videos of artists such as Vladimir Horowitz, Miles Davis, Count Basie, Itzhak Perlman and others, you will see how they play from this space [my emphasis]. After considering the material in this book, you’ll view what they are doing in a new light. When Miles approached the microphone, he focused himself into that space before playing his first note.”

Effortless Mastery, 82.

If you want to know what Werner means by “this space,” you’ll have to read the book (or study his videos), though I think it is intuitively fairly obvious. In any case, it’s clear to me at least that Harrell consistently plays, improvises, and writes from this space. From what I have gathered on this Trip, there are not many of his fellow musicians who would disagree. And when you play or write in this space, Innovation happens. INNOVATION IS JAZZ. INNOVATION IS THE TRADITION.

Furthermore, by all indications Harrell is an exceptionally intelligent and curious person. I suspect that if someone were to communicate Werner’s ideas to him, Harrell would nod in contemplative agreement. Since Werner was touring quite a bit with Harrell at this time, I have wondered if in their months on the road together they ever “talked philosophy.” Unfortunately, I have not succeeded in getting any time with Werner, but I was luckier with Harrell’s and Werner’s mutual friend, the pianist, writer, and educator David Berkman. Berkman himself was the beneficiary of Werner’s tutelage, and I will have more to say about David in my next post on these RCA years. But on this subject, David told me Tom is normally very pragmatic in his language and would probably not discourse on these concepts in the language Werner uses (Effortless is imbued with spiritual, particularly eastern, ideas and is dedicated to Werner’s spiritual teacher, Gurumayi Chidvilasananda). On the other hand, David recalled having Tom as a guest at a clinic he was teaching in Canada. A student asked Harrell what music meant to him, and David was surprised by how poetically Tom waxed in his reply. “I really love music,” Tom said, “because it has everything: math, spirituality, …” (My apologies to David if I’m not remembering the anecdote or the quote exactly correctly.)

But I said at the beginning that I am not writing a biography of Harrell, and I said I would divide my Trip documentation into a Part 1 about the music and a Part 2 about Harrell himself. I’m very much still in Part 1. I’ll end with this. David was telling me that, with Harrell, “everybody just stops and listens.” To illustrate the point, he pointed me to a video clip of Harrell soloing on Darn That Dream in a live performance from 2012. Granted I’m jumping ahead chronologically here, but looking at it, is there any doubt Harrell is playing in “the space”? And to David’s point, does Wayne Escoffery (the tenor saxophonist standing behind Harrell) have any doubt?

Rhythm: Leon Parker


One of the most acclaimed and distinctive drummers to gain prominence in the 1990s, Leon Parker executed a near-vanishing act 15 years ago, after becoming demoralized by the state of jazz and the music industry in the U.S.”

An article in the San Diego Union-Tribune, 2016

Most of us do not have Kenny Werner’s gift of verbal articulation. Leon Parker clearly has strong opinions about music, the music profession, and life, but he best articulates them by beating on things, including his own body. In the 90s he was on a roll. DownBeat included him as part of their New World Order in 1996 (above). In the early 90s, on a recommendation from Ira Gitler, the producer Joel Dorn (“The Masked Announcer”) went to check out a Jacky Terrasson trio, with Ugonna Okegwo on bass and Leon Parker on drums, playing at Bradley’s in New York. Dorn was particularly taken with Parker (“Leon was the cardiovascular system of the trio”), and he went on to produce Parker’s four albums as a leader in this period, beginning with the well-received Above & Below in 1994. Above & Below was made for Epicure, a new jazz offshoot of Epic/Columbia/Sony that Dorn was starting up at the time. The engineer was Joe Ferla (see above). Ferla was also to engineer the following two Dorn-Parker collaborations.

Above & Below introduces Parker’s trademark minimalist approach to percussion. It also features a number of players who, besides Parker himself, figure majorly in Tom Harrell’s orbit: Terrasson, Okegwo, fellow drummer/percussionist (and occasionally pianist) Adam Cruz, saxophonist Mark Turner (check them all out on the funky All My Life track from Above & Below).

Terrasson had of course recorded the “accidental” duo album Moon and Sand with Harrell back in France in 1991 (my account). In 1994 and 1995 Terrasson’s trio with Okegwo and Parker made three excellent albums for Blue Note (Lover Man, Jacky Terrasson, Reach). You will hear much more about Okegwo, Cruz, and Turner later on on this Trip.

Besides leading a trio himself at New York’s Village Gate from 1990 until the Gate closed in 1994, Parker in these years also recorded with other distinguished artists such as Don Braden. Parker’s composition Belief first appears on Braden’s 1994 album Organic, which was also produced by Dorn and engineered by Joe Ferla for Epicure. (Harrell is not on that particular track). Finally, in 1996, soon after Harrell’s Labyrinth (we think), Parker made Belief, produced this time by Dorn (and engineered by Ferla) for Sony’s Columbia label. I will return to Belief when I find my way out of the Labyrinth.

Just to glance ahead at Parker’s career, though — In 1998 Parker made another album for Columbia, Awakening, and in 2001 he made an album (this time for a Dorn venture called Label M) whose title puts Parker’s musical and personal philosophy in a nutshell: The Simple Life. Soon after, Parker moved to France and for the most part disappeared from the New World Order. I read that at some point he no longer even owned a drum set and instead was teaching body percussion (he calls it “embodi rhythm”), that is, using one’s own body as the drum — as examples, hear the opening and closing tracks on Above & Below, Body Movement I (18 seconds) and Body Movement II (71 seconds). This reminds me of what my trainer Trevor used to tell me, “let your body be the gym.” It also literally embodies Werner’s concept of Becoming the Instrument.

In recent years Parker has returned to the scene, branding himself as the Embodi Jazz Maker, and late last year (2021) he released an album (streaming-only, as far as I can tell) called The Leo . Leon the Lion’s album packages up miscellaneous tracks recorded over the last few years, some with old partners like Joshua Redman, Mark Turner, and Tom Harrell, and some with exciting new ones like Cécile McLorin Salvant. Parker’s trademark sparse percussive sound picks up right where it left off, and the album is altogether superb, including the track with Harrell (Duet; Martin Johnson in JazzTimes: “Parker’s ascetic elegance is best showcased on “Duet,” a graceful piece featuring superb playing by Tom Harrell.”).

At the time of Labyrinth and the New World Order, rhythm was in the air and was a special focus of Harrell’s, as becomes duh-obvious with his next RCA album.

Parker and me

In the liner notes to The Simple Life, I was amazed to see that among the people and places Parker thanks are “Peekskill, NY – the artists, musicians, and folks” and local businesses in Peekskill including the Bruised Apple. My family and I lived in Peekskill from 1980 through 1994, and my artistic daughter in her post-high-school days hung out frequently at this very Bruised Apple (a combination coffee house and bookstore). Peekskill was among the cities and villages up and down the Hudson River that had gone into steep decline due to the loss of manufacturing. But in the 90s Peekskill underwent a Renaissance and in particular launched a campaign to attract artists and even provide them with subsidized housing. I was hoping to be able to ask Parker when he lived in Peekskill and perhaps swap some Peekskill stories, but he is back in France now and almost impossible to reach (despite one hopeful email).

Labyrinth – the music

Ok, Tom Harrell, you be Daedalus and I’ll be Theseus. Let’s see what’s in your labyrinth.

The first three tracks are in the quintet format, and their titles all evoke a particular rhythm, Samba Maté, Marimba Song, and Cheetah. I wish I knew what the maté in Samba Maté means. Maté is a heavily caffeinated South American drink with a long history that predates the Europeans. My best guess is that Samba Maté is named after this drink. In any case, the 16-bar samba proceeds in regular order, so to speak. The ensemble plays the theme (one time), then three solo choruses for Werner, three for Harrell, and one for Braden, and the theme is repeated, with a climactic tag added on.

Marimba Song is a little more complex structurally. Oddly, it has no marimba; the Caribbean rhythm promised by the title is supplied by Billy Hart’s drums. This time Braden solos first, followed by Harrell on flugelhorn. Werner does not have a solo per se, but after the ensemble repeats the theme, he takes it out with an extended and climactic coda egged on by Hart’s pounding drums.

Picture to yourself the sudden twists and turns of a wild cheetah, and you will easily imagine the jagged theme of Cheetah and the “free” tour de forces delivered by Braden, Harrell (after a nifty handoff), and finally Hart, with appropriate comping for the horns from Werner (especially pronounced behind Braden). (If you want a literary analog to this musical portrait, check out Rainer Marie Rilke’s Der Panther.)

The order of the tracks is probably not the recording order, but it is interesting how the first three numbers increase in complexity. They are followed in turn by the first track with the augmented group, and it is a deliciously drag-paced big-band doozy of a blues, Blue In One, with great solos by Gary Smulyan on bass clarinet and then Harrell. Each track on the album I think is bound to be my favorite … until I get to the next one!

Hot Licks on the Sidewalk shows off Harrell’s composing and arranging skills for large ensemble. If you played this for me in a Blindfold contest and told me it was Quincy Jones, I would readily believe it. Solos from Braden, Harrell, and Hart.

Rob Botti’s oboe in the gorgeous theme of Majesty can’t help but remind me of the jazz oboe classic, Yusef Lateef’s Love Theme From “Spartacus” (Eastern Sounds), and I doubt I’m the only one. In my quest for a pretty song, Majesty will almost certainly be a candidate. The arrangement adds on layers of instrumentation as it progresses through several repetitions of its 16-bar theme (Harrell’s trumpet joining in the last eight bars), followed by an 8-bar bridge that leads to a solo from Joe Lovano, followed by Steve Turre’s trombone and then Harrell. Leon Parker’s shaker lends a special rhythmic underscoring to the solos (if you listen carefully, the shaker gets the last word too).

The theme’s initial descending pattern in Sun Cycle — another title with a time connotation — somehow themes [sic] to me as if in response, in a kind of dialog, to the preceding track (mind you, this is after many listenings). Every instrument in the augmented ensemble gets an audible role, and the single solo comes from Lovano. This time Parker underscores with the congas.

As said above, the standard Darn That Dream, the one non-Harrell piece on the album, is a duo played reverently by Harrell on flugelhorn dubbed over the chords he himself plays on piano. Harrell also played piano in his youth, and Stephanie Stein in her liner notes observes that Harrell’s chord voicings on the piano resonate with a sense of harmony akin to Bill Evans. In fact, she adds, the piano used is actually the Steinway Evans used through much of his recording career. Compare the 2012 version of Darn That Dream linked to above.

Leon Parker is in the house. His cowbells help kick off the sermon that the composer-preacher calls Bear That In Mind (Parker also plays congas on this one). Kenny Werner is feeling the spirit. Harrell joins on trumpet. Turre has some testifying to do too.

Labyrinth, the bebop-ish closing track, takes us back to the quintet and straight-ahead-jazz rhythm, propelled by Hart and Larry Grenadier’s walking bass. Braden, Harrell, and Werner solo.

I have found this album more and more engrossing each time I listen to it. To the strength of his own solos and his always interesting writing Harrell adds a real flair for arranging, and that makes his debut album for RCA a milestone (sorry if I sound like I’m writing a review!).

In my Trip through Harrell-land I have not wanted to nor made any attempt to read his record reviews. The one exception has been that, when I was researching his breakthrough in the DownBeat and JazzTimes polls in 1996, I had it in hand and couldn’t resist reading John McDonough’s DownBeat review of Labyrinth (July, 1996). McDonough characterizes Harrell’s improvisation style in a way I can’t find fault with, and I thought I’d quote it here: “Tom Harrell offers neither range nor flash in this debut Victor CD. His sound, as on other records, has a vibratoless stability that is even and tart but without great shifts of tension or temperament. Without the protection of conspicuous virtuosity and hard-swinging bravado, though, Harrell draws you in to listen closely and track his logic. Just as in the work of Chet Baker and Miles Davis, both of whom he resembles, this is where the rewards are buried. The virtuosity here is simple — clean articulation that never overreaches itself in the service of a thoughtful and imaginative improviser.” This is perfectly consistent with the “economy of line,” the sustained flow through, I wrote about and quoted others as describing in my initial assessment of Harrell’s style as improviser. (“Maybe the real virtuosity,” McDonough goes on to say about Labyrinth, “is in the writing.”)

I said earlier that for these RCA years I would proceed more strictly chronologically, and in a minute I will visit the recordings Harrell made as sideman following Labyrinth. One thing is worth keeping in mind, though. Harrell did not spend his entire life hunkered down in recording studios, an impression I may be unintentionally creating. He was incessantly touring, especially in Europe, often to promote his most recent album and compositions. I know this especially from a compilation my friend and Harrell discographer Klaus Gottwald has maintained of privately held recordings of club performances and radio broadcasts, as well as miscellany such as Harrell’s travel schedules, pointers to YouTube videos and interviews, etc. If I were writing a biography of Harrell, which I emphatically am not, all this would be an important part of the story. I realize that, based on recordings only, I have only an imperfect knowledge of people he traveled and played with extensively (two examples come to mind as I scan Klaus’s material, Jim Snidero and Donald Brown). Just to give a flavor, though, as part of conveying a more “day in the life/month in the life/year in the life” perspective, I am appending a table at the bottom of this post, showing Harrell’s touring activity in 1996 and 1997 up to The Art of Rhythm.


If I had to describe in a word the music on Leon Parker’s four albums as leader from 1994-2001, it would be “fun.” Regarding Belief, we only know it was recorded sometime in 1996, our best guess early, so we will somewhat arbitrarily insert it here chronologically. Thematically, in any case, Harrell’s Labyrinth segues to Parker’s Belief rather nicely.

“Not only does Leon march to the beat of a different drummer … he’s the drummer!”

Joel Dorn, Producer of Belief for Columbia Records

All Parker’s albums, up to and including 2021’s The Leo, share a similar set of identifying characteristics.

  • Instrumentation.
    • Drums. On some tracks Parker plays what the Belief credits call “jazz drums,” i.e., straight-ahead jazz drumming albeit on a spare kit*; on some he plays various percussion instruments; on some he collaborates with a second drummer-percussionist, both Natalie Cushman and Adam Cruz for example on Belief. Between himself and Cushman and Cruz, we hear on Belief a steelpan, bell, shekere, shakers, woodblock, frame drum, ashiko drum, congas, berimbau, marimba, “ringing sounds,” and handclaps.
    • The human voice. Parker not infrequently adds a human voice, sometimes his own, sometimes with lyrics but more often as a wordless chant. There is an overlap with world music and a strong whiff of The Art Ensemble of Chicago. So, for example, on the Belief album, Cushman and Parker’s collaboration Calling Out and Cushman, Steve Wilson, and Parker’s Wide Open; also Jay McGovern on Above & Beyond, Elizabeth Kontomanou on The Simple Life, and miscellaneous vocalists on Awakening and The Leo.
    • Horns. Parker uses horns very deliberately. They are used here and there, where they are musically effective, and not for the purpose of being able to say, as I sometimes suspect, “featuring Tom Harrell.”
  • Material. Mostly compositions from Parker or Parker + friends (for example, Horizon Azul on Belief, written by Parker and his wife Lisa Parker, who plays flute), plus a few standards from composers he likes, like Monk and Ellington (examples: a version of In A Sentimental Mood saturated in percussion on Belief; Bemsha Swing, a swinging vehicle for Terrasson, Okegwo, Parker, and Cruz on Above & Below; Juan Tizol’s Caravan on both Above & Below and The Simple Life). He typically uses the repetition of simple themes to render a funk feel.
  • Result. Each track is crafted by Parker to be a “lean groove.”

*For a meticulous description of Parker’s stripped-down drum set and Parker’s thought process in getting there, see Whitney Balliett’s interview of Parker in the January 13, 1997 New Yorker, on the occasion of the Belief album. The boiled-down version is, “Nowadays, his set usually consists of a three-inch snare; a floor tomtom tipped on its side and equipped with legs, a foot pedal, and a cowbell; and a thin, eighteen-inch, hand-hammered, flattop ride cymbal. He also uses wire brushes and amazingly light parade-size drumsticks.”

So Harrell is used where it makes sense musically on Belief. Specifically, Harrell, Steve Wilson on alto, and Steve Davis on trombone are used on two highly infectious “lean grooves,” Ray Of Light, named by Parker after his tutor and mentor Ray White (he also dedicated the entire album Above & Below to White), and Parker’s title track Belief.

Eight bars of Parker’s ride cymbal get the groove started on Ray Of Light. The 8-bar melody, played by Harrell and Wilson over Parker’s cymbals and Ugonna Okegwo’s bass pattern, could not be simpler, more hummable or, with Cruz’s steelpan response in the third and fourth measure, more colorful. Four repetitions of this melody are followed by an ascending 8-bar dramatic trombone interlude. The theme consisting of the four-times repeated melody plus trombone passage is then repeated. After a transition passage of cowbells and drums, Harrell slides perfectly into the groove with a really nice solo (with Cruz now on piano). There follows a “dancing dialog” (liner notes) between Harrell and Wilson and then a duet between Parker’s wordless chant and Cruz’s piano, all undergirded by the cowbells. The track ends with the twice-repeated 8-bar trombone passage. With one rhythmic click of your mouse, you can hear it for yourself.

It is Parker’s brushes, then joined polyrhythmically by the cowbell and congas (Cruz), that kick off Belief. It is another simple 8-bar melody, repeated three times, followed by a more swing-style 16 bar passage, with Parker adding cymbals and Okegwo a walking bass and Harrell as the lead voice (Steve Davis is credited with the horn arrangement on this one). Over an almost march-like beat, solos from Wilson, Davis, and Harrell, each accompanied by a transition ensemble passage, then Okegwo. With that same rhythmic click of the mouse you do so well, you can hear this one too.

Parker recorded the tracks for The Simple Life in 2000 , but he and Dorn included one track from their 1996 vault, a live recording of Belief at the Village Vanguard with Harrell and others.

Mitch Borden, pictured above, founded Smalls on West 10th Street in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village in 1994. A serious jazz venue, it served no alcohol and only charged a $10 cover and so catered to the young. In the years 1995-1997 Armacost, in his mid-30s, did jam sessions and headliner events there, and this one from December 6-7, 1996 was recorded.

As indicated on the map, in 1996, after Labyrinth and Leon Parker’s Belief, Harrell recorded several studio albums which I have already reported on. Next in order is this live session with Tim Armacost.

Tim Armacost’s debut album as leader was Fire, with Kenny Barron (piano), Gerald Cannon (bass), and both Billy Hart (some tracks) and Shingo Okudaira (some tracks) on drums. It was recorded in November 1995 (Concord, Allen Farnham producer). Armacost was then a month shy of 33 and had already had an amazing globe-trotting life. In writing about vibraphonist Charlie Shoemake, I mentioned that Shoemake was a popular teacher in the Los Angeles area, not for the vibraphone exclusively but for harmony and improvisation in general. Armacost grew up in Tokyo and Washington D.C. At 18 he moved to LA, where he studied for three years with Shoemake and at the same time graduated in 1985 from Pomona College magna cum laude with a degree in Asia Studies. Upon graduation he moved to Amsterdam, where he stayed for almost seven years, drilling deeper into the study of harmony while touring Europe and recording with locals, and while teaching at Amsterdam’s Sweelinck Academy (he has been an international jazz educator for many years now and has just published The Jazz Saxophone Book for Sher Music Co.). If that doesn’t sufficiently impress you, he spent 1992-1993 in New Delhi studying with a tabla master (in November 1996, a month before his Smalls gig, he was a headliner at the Jazz Yatra Festival in Bombay). Finally, later in 1993, he moved to New York.

Until recently, Live At Smalls was his only recording with Harrell, but Armacost went on to play with many others from Harrell’s orbit, including bassists Joris Teepe, Ugonna Okegwo, and Ray Drummond, pianist David Berkman, and drummer Billy Hart. However, fast forwarding to the present (April 2022), hot off the wire is the news that, as musicians emerge from the Covid pandemic, Tim Armacost has been spotted going into The Bunker Studio in Brooklyn with Tom Harrell, Gary Smulyan, Al Foster, and John Patitucci. “Glorious day of my life yesterday, feeling the deep swing of Al Foster, John Patitucci, Tom Harrell and Gary Smulyan, from 5 pm til midnight at The Bunker. Evening recording session, like the old days,” writes Armacost on his Facebook page. Something to look forward to.

On the bandstand with Armacost for the Small’s session were Harrell, Jonny King on piano, Gerald Cannon on bass, and Shingo Okudaira on drums. (Okudaira moved to New York in 1991 and returned to Japan in 2010.) Armacost says the album was the realization of two long-held dreams. One was to document himself before a live audience, and one was to record with Tom Harrell. Right away you can feel the vibe at Smalls when Armacost introduces the musicians before launching into Gary Bartz’s Libra. In fact the six musical tracks are Armacost’s homage to favorite musicians, especially saxophonists: Besides (1) Libra (from Bartz’s 1968 debut album Libra), (2) Armacost’s own Tenor Vibe, (3) Ornette Coleman’s Invisible (Something else!!!), (4) Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s Whistling Away The Dark (Abbey Lincoln sings this on her 1983 album Talking To The Sun, which Armacost calls one of his “Desert Island Discs;” the Smalls group does this beautifully {it is the one number on which Harrell plays flugelhorn}), (5) Hank Mobley’s Hank’s Other Bag (A Slice of the Top) — Armacost plays a breathlessly perfect soprano sax on this one; do you think the audience digs it?! –, and (6) the standard You Don’t Know What Love Is (monumentally performed by Sonny Rollins on Saxophone Colossus) — King has a solo, but this one is mostly Armacost, Harrell sitting out.

The music here is my thing. Armacost’s tenor has a rich, robust sound right out of the school of Gene Ammons, Dexter Gordon, Rollins et al. The band is tight. And for these type occasions, I get a double treat: Besides the album, I’ve made a playlist interweaving the Smalls tracks with the original inspirations cited above (dig that arrangement of Hank’s Other Bag from the original!).

This is a nice idea, but whose was it? Somehow Japan is involved, but I can’t find a direct answer anywhere. Four contemporary master trumpeters play nine well-known tunes associated with and dedicated to past trumpet masters. Hard to go wrong. It would have been fun to be a fly on the wall and watch these four, with the solid support of Mulgrew Miller on piano, Peter Washington on bass, and Carl Allen on drums, interact in New York’s Clinton Recording Studio those two days of May 14 and 15, 1997.

My sleuthing tells me only this. Trumpet Legacy was put out on Milestone Records, a division of Fantasy Jazz. The producer was Makoto Kimata, the co-producers saxophonist Vincent Herring and the session’s drummer Carl Allen. Herring and Allen had co-founded Big Apple Productions in 1988, and they produced several albums for several Japanese labels with artists like Roy Hargrove and Nicholas Payton. Kimata was also the producer for Benny Golson’s Tenor Legacy. Tenor Legacy was recorded in 1996 (at New York’s Sound on Sound studio) and originally released by the Japanese Keystone label before being re-released by Arkadia Jazz in 1998. Just as with Trumpet Legacy, Tenor Legacy teams up contemporary tenor saxophonists Golson, Branford Marsalis, James Carter, and Harold Ashby on ten well-known tunes associated with and dedicated to past (and present) tenor masters. So the closest I can come to an answer to my question, whose idea was this, is: Makoto Kimata.

It’s always nice to hear Harrell teamed up with other trumpeters and to relish their different styles — on this Trip we’ve already seen this with John McNeil, John Swana, Jon Faddis, Art Farmer, and Dizzy Gillespie. Here we have three trumpeters of one generation — Eddie Henderson, born 1940, Lew Soloff, born 1944, and Harrell, born 1946 — teamed up with the young up-and-comer Nicholas Payton, born 1973. Tenor Legacy is explicitly marketed as a Benny Golson record. Trumpet Legacy is occasionally — by the album and track metadata in the Apple music library, for example — but mistakenly, as far as I can tell, conceived of as a Nicholas Payton album.

The opening and closing tracks — Miles’s So What and Dizzy’s That’s Earl Brother — feature all four masters, Payton, Harrell, Henderson, and Soloff soloing in that order on the former, followed by Miller’s piano, Henderson (followed by Miller), Payton, Soloff, and Harrell, followed by Washington’s bass, on the latter. It’s a special pleasure to hear the four in unison on the complex thematic lines of That’s Earl Brother.

Harrell is also on two other tracks. He is the featured player on Kenny Dorham’s Lotus Blossom, and he leads the soloing, followed by Henderson and Soloff, on Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder — this one really shows off the contrasting styles. For the record, the players on the other tracks are Soloff and Payton on Duke Jordan’s Jordu, dedicated to Clifford Brown; Payton and Henderson on Mal Waldron’s Fire Waltz, dedicated to Booker Little; and featured soloists Soloff on My Funny Valentine (dedicated to Chet Baker, of course), Payton on There’s No You, dedicated to Louis (Armstrong, of course), and Henderson on Fats Navarro’s Nostalgia.

Richard Ginell in his liner notes points out one eerie aspect of the jazz trumpet legacy, namely that six in its pantheon had lives tragically cut short in one fashion or another, namely, Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, Chet Baker, Booker Little, and Kenny Dorham. Sadly, Roy Hargrove now has to be added to that list.

But setting that aside, pour yourself a tall glass of trumpet and drink it in!

A Year in the Life

As said above, touring has been just as much of Tom Harrell’s life as recording. To give a flavor, I have compiled this list, based on Klaus Gottwald’s research, for just the period between Harrell’s first and second RCA albums. One thing to note: Quintet versions on the road of the studio’s larger ensemble pieces like Blues In One and Hot Licks On the Sidewalk.

(early 1996Sear Sound Studios, NYLeon Parker, Belief)
9 March, 1996Teatro Monumental, MadridTete Montoliu Quintet (Montoliu piano, Harrell, Pierre Boussaguet bass, Alvin Queen drums)
(20-22 March, 1996Sear Sound Studios, NYLee Konitz & The Brazilian Band, Brazilian Serenade)
18 April, 1996Chorus Club, Lausanne (Switzerland)Harrell Quintet: Don Braden, Kenny Werner, Larry Grenadier, Billy Hart
25 April, 1996Les Trinitaires Club, Metz (France)Harrell Quintet: Don Braden, Kenny Werner, Larry Grenadier, Billy Hart (numbers include Blue In One, Marimba Song, Labyrinth)
28 April, 1996Frankfurter Hof Club, Mainz (Germany)Harrell Quintet: Don Braden, Kenny Werner, Larry Grenadier, Billy Hart (numbers include Blue In One, Marimba Song, Labyrinth, Hot Licks On The Sidewalk, Cheetah)
April 11-30, 1996other venues in Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Italy Harrell Quintet: Don Braden, Kenny Werner, Larry Grenadier, Billy Hart
14 May – 4 August, 1996NY (Visiones), Atlanta, Oakland (Yoshi’s), Santa Cruz (Kuumba Club), Hollywood (Catalina’s)Harrell Quintet: Don Braden, Kenny Werner, Larry Grenadier or David Ephross bass, Billy Hart
04-10 June, 1996Chicago (Jazz Showcase)Harrell Quintet: Braden, Donald Brown piano, David Ephross bass, Yoron Israel drums
(21-22 June, 1996Clinton Recording Studio, NYA Tribute to the Legacy of Woody Herman)
(23-25 June, 1996)Right Track Studios, NYHelen Merrill, You and the Night and the Music)
4 July, 1996Iowa CityHarrell Quintet: Joe Lovano, Kenny Werner, Anthony Cox bass, Yoron Israel drums
5-7 July, 1996NY (Bradley’s)Harrell Trio: John Hicks piano, David Williams bass
10-11 July, 1996Philadelphia (Zanzibar Blue)Harrell Quintet: Don Braden, David Berkman piano, Larry Grenadier bass, Tony Reedus drums
12 July, 1996Boston (Regatta Bar)Harrell Quintet: Don Braden, Kenny Werner piano, Larry Grenadier bass, Tony Reedus drums
24 July, 1996Oakland (Yoshi’s)Harrell Quintet: Don Braden, Donald Brown piano, David Ephross bass, Billy Hart (numbers include Marimba Song, Majesty, Cheetah, Hot Licks On The Sidewalk, Labyrinth)
30 July, 1996LA (Catalina Bar & Grill)Harrell Quintet: Don Braden, Donald Brown piano, David Ephross bass, Billy Hart (numbers Cheetah, Hot Licks On The Sidewalk, others unknown)
August 9, 1996Brecon, Wales/UK (Christ College Memorial Theatre)Harrell Sextet: Bob Berg, Steve Turre, David Berkman, Larry Grenadier, Billy Hart (numbers include Blue In One, Sun Cycle, Majesty)
August 10, 1996Lisbon (National Theatre)Harrell Sextet+: Bob Berg, Steve Turre, David Berkman, Larry Grenadier, Billy Hart, two unknown musicians
25 August, 1996Toledo, OHHarrell Quintet: Braden, Kenny Werner, David Ephross bass, Yoron Israel drums
29 August, 1996LA (Museum of Contemporary Art)Harrell Quintet: Don Braden, Billy Childs piano, Jeff Littleton bass, Yoron Israel drums
December, 1996NY (Blue Note Club)John Pizzarelli Orchestra, Harrell special guest, other musicians unknown, Don Sebesky arrangements but tunes unknown
(6-7 December, 1996NY (Smalls)Tim Armacost, Live At Smalls)
27-29 December, 1996St. Paul, MN (Artist’s Quarter)Harrell Quartet: Craig Taborn piano, Anthony Cox bass, Kenny Horst drums
(14-15 May, 1997Clinton Recording Studio, NYTrumpet Legacy)

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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