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

Leader: The Art of Rhythm

They are facing us and inviting us to study them, but their gaze is inward, self-reflective, almost impenetrable. I am struck by the similarity in the 52-year-old Rembrandt’s self-portrait (part of the Frick Collection in New York) and the photographic portrait of 51-year-old Harrell on the front of The Art Of Rhythm. The shading, the hair, above all the eyes and the gaze. In some ways it all seems to come together for Harrell with this one: Innovation. It is his most ambitious foray yet into writing and arranging for larger ensembles, and RCA had the $ to pay for the requisite musicians and studio time.

The Art Of Rhythm declares itself a concept album, and that concept is Rhythm. But in its realization and in the listeners’ experience, the element of rhythm cannot be divorced from that of the painter’s pallet. This is the art of rhythm.

The origin and nature of sound, noise, and rhythm

Harrell is a thinking person, a student of the world, and alert to musical trends. At this time, rhythm seemed to be in the air. In fact of course, literally, it is.

“The sound has been called many things by many cultures. Some call it the seed sound, the One, the pulse at the heart of the universe. The Hindus call it the Nada Brahma; we prefer the big bang. § In the beginning was the noise. §

One of the few fundamental things we know about our universe is that everything in it is vibrating, is in motion, has a rhythm. Every molecule, every atom is dancing its own unique dance, singing its signature song.”

Mickey Hart, Planet Drum: A Celebration of Percussion and Rhythm, 1991

My guess would be that Harrell was familiar with Mickey Hart’s 1991 book. Hart was the drummer (one of two) for the Grateful Dead and an avid musicologist. Planet Drum is a richly illustrated, highly informative and entertaining book plus a CD featuring Hart, Airto Moreira, Zakir Hussain, Babatunde Olatunji, and others playing about every percussion instrument you could ever think of, frequently with chant (cf. Leon Parker). It is a fitting book for the period of around 1985-1995 when the commerical genre called world music, aka worldbeat or “roots”, peaked. It is the period when Leon Parker bloomed. (For a scholarly view, see the 1996 journal article by Veit Erlmann, “The Aesthetics of the Global Imagination: Reflections on World Music in the 1990s”– Public Culture, Vol. 8, 467-487.)

Not that jazz’s or Harrell’s focus on rhythm begins in the 1990s, of course. Manteca! Or take 1972. This is the year of Miles’s street percussive On The Corner and its four drummers: Jack DeJohnette, Harrell’s about-to-be Horace Silver bandmate Al Foster, Harrell’s frequent future drummer Billy Hart, and Don Alias, who will record twenty years later with Harrell on Wolfgang Muthspiel’s Black & Blue, plus James Mtume on percussion and Badal Roy on tabla. 1972 is also the year of Santana’s Caravanserai, whose heavily percussive orchestral track Every Step of the Way was charted out by Harrell. 1972 was also the year of Coke and Pete Escovedo’s Azteca, Harrell’s role on which I have already covered. 1972 was also the year of Malo’s self-titled album, and while Harrell is never credited in print with being a member of that band, based on a subsequent group photo he must have been, though perhaps not for the recording. In fact Harrell dedicates The Art of Rhythm to two figures from these early Los Angeles days, trumpeter Luis Gasca, who is the credited trumpeter on Malo and who also played with Santana and Azteca (the bio and credits are a little murky), and Romanian émigré and club owner Catalina Popescu.

The origin of jazz and jazz rhythm

“Possession trance is the psychic complement of shamanic trance. Instead of the shaman riding the drumbeat out of his body to the spirit world [the World Tree], in the possession trance the spirits ride the drumbeat down into the body of the trance dancer … Variations of possession trance … have achieved their perhaps richest articulation in West Africa. There an ancestor spirit is known as an Orisha — literally, ‘he whom Ori [the head] has picked out for distinction.’ … It is the drum that calls the Orisha … When the slave trade began in the seventeenth century, this technique of possession trance was carried to the New World. In those places where the Africans were allowed to keep their drums, it mutated into candomblé, santería, and vôdun. In America, where the drums were prohibited for many generations, this legacy of possession-trance dance rhythm was shorn of its spiritual dimension, becoming instead jazz, blues, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll.”

Planet Drum, p. 138

While it is only my guess that Tom Harrell was familiar with Planet Drum, Kenny Werner definitely was, since in Effortless Mastery he cites the above passage and then elaborates: “These comments by Mickey Hart excited me because I have read of great beings who have said many times that all search for sense pleasures is really the search for God … As enslaved peoples are separated from their religion, the lyrics of the song change. The cry is for sense pleasures: more sex, money, alcohol … Desire for ‘my God’ is supplanted by the desire for ‘my man’. ” Food for thought.

What else in the musical trends of the day and in Harrell’s own experience may have been on his mind as he decided to dedicate an album to the art of rhythm?

For the 1977-1978 Silver ‘N Percussion, the percussion entry in his Silver ‘N X album series, Horace Silver drew on this African anthropology for Side One, “African Ascension.” Silver had a theological point of view. He traces the African spiritual evolution from polytheism in The Gods of the Yoruba to monotheistic worship of the Sun in The Sun God of the Masai to the higher worship of God “in THE SPIRIT, which is LOVE” in The Spirit of the Zulu. (Side Two, “The Great American Indian Uprising,” traces an analogous evolution from the Incas to the Aztecs to the Mohicans.) This recording was an important part of Harrell’s formative years with Silver, and rhythm is the key; to his quintet of Harrell, Larry Schneider (tenor sax), Ron Carter (bass), and Al Foster (drums), Silver added percussionists Babatunde Olatunji — the same Babatunde who is to play years later on the Planet Drum CD — and Ladji Camara, as well as a chorus for chants.

In turn, Silver and Harrell were almost certainly familiar with Baden Powell and Vinicius De Moraes’s 1966 Os Afro-Sambas, since most everyone who has immersed themselves in Brazilian music is, and that would include most jazz musicians; the sambas are certainly among the most enduringly beautiful and joyful pieces of music of my own listening experience. The album resulted from Powell and De Moraes’s shared interest in the intensely rhythmic and percussive musical styles and associated folk and religious aspects of Bahia, in particular the ritual trance music of Candomblé. The sparse instrumentation of Os Afro-Sambas combines Powell’s guitar with atabaques, agogo, bongo, and afoxé. The album’s Cantos for the Yoruban-derived OrishaOssanha, Xangô, Iemanjá — treat with wit and charm and beauty the themes of earthly love and its inexorable aspects of pain and transience. The Orisha are not always benevolent. Pace Horace Silver, but call me an enthusiastic polytheist!

(The 2008 CD reissue of Os Afro-Sambas has two bonuses: the inclusion of Powell’s earlier and related recording, A Vontade, and informative liner notes from Christopher Evans. Evans says that the alcoholic Powell — one of the competing versions of the origins of the Afro-sambas claims that Powell and De Moraes squirreled themselves away for three months in seclusion with enough whiskey for an army — converted to evangelical Christianity near the end of his life and disowned the Afro-sambas as “the devil’s music.”)

sung over percussive beats that include Candido’s bongos: “Rhythm pum te dum come from the drum / Rhythm came to America from Africa / From overseas, Africa, to the West Indies / Rhythm came to Africa from way back”

narrated (by Ellington): “Once there was a boy named Caribee Joe. He spoke with the animals in their jungle slang, his heartbeat was like bongos and he sang every song they sang. One day he found an elaborately fabricated drum, and when he touched it, it actually spoke to him, saying ‘I am not a drum, I am a woman. Know me as Madam Zajj, African chantress.’ “

Rhythm Pum Te Dum, a song from Part I of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s A Drum Is A Woman, 1956

The adventurous Madam Zajj cannot persuade Caribee Joe to abandon the primitive purity of his beloved jungle, so she hops a trade wind to Barbados (“there are many Joes”) and, in Ellington and Strayhorn’s “musical fantasy paralleling the history of the origins of jazz [and his own musical career],” Zajj moves on to New Orleans and eventually, after an interim stop on the moon (what’s not to like about Johnny Hodges in Ballet of the Flying Saucers?!), to bebop city New York, but always remembering and dreaming of Caribee Joe.

Ellington is quoted in Columbia producer Irving Townsend’s liner notes as saying, “Jazz must have a sense of humor. I never heard a really good jazz musician who didn’t have a sense of humor.” Agreed! And in that spirit, I have kind of fallen in love with Madame Zajj. Jazz is for Ellington unabashedly sensuous and ecstatic. In Congo Square (where slaves were allowed to congregate on Sundays), the dancers’ trance-like state reaches almost violent proportions. When Zajj appears, “Every head turns to the entrance of the most primitive woman. This of course does not mean simple or elementary. She is an exciting, ornately stimulating seductress with patterns of excitement and the power to hypnotize and enervate the will toward total abandonment.” By the time she gets to New York (emerging from the hatch of the flying saucer!), her beauty has become ever more urban, glamorous, gaudy, and sophisticated. Still a sorceress, though, she manages to communicate telepathically percussively with Joe and get him briefly to New York in a dream: “Madam Zajj went into her dance, Madame Zajj went into a trance, maracas, bongos, claves, congas, timbales, [and one more percussive instrument whose name I cannot understand],” just as the shamans and orishas rode the drumbeat in the shamanic and possession trance traditions.

For me Joe and Zajj represent symbolically the two polarities of my own formulation of the Ellington magic: Jungle + Elegance. Was Tom Harrell particularly familiar with A Drum Is A Woman? I can’t hazard a guess. For sure he is a connoisseur of Ellington’s compositional sophistication and Ellington’s art of rhythm, if you will.

As I said, a lot of things seem to come together for Harrell on this album. Other aspects of his past experience come to mind. I think for example of the Bobby Vince Paunetto recordings from the 70s, of the more recent (1993) Fernando Tarrés Secret Rhythms and David Sanchez The Departure recordings, of the Latin inspiration and heavy use of Café’s percussion on Harrell’s own Chesky album Passages (1991).

But it’s time to get to the music.

“All songs composed and arranged by Tom Harrell”

So what instrument is absent on the very first track of The Art Of Rhythm? The drum! Petals Danse is as pretty and as gentle as the title and Romero Lubambo’s 8-bar acoustic guitar intro and tempo suggest. Following this intro, Greg Tardy plays the main 32-bar (by my count) theme on clarinet (Tardy started out in music studying classical clarinet); he is backed rhythmically by Lubambo and both harmonically and rhythmically by a string trio (Regina Carter violin, Ron Lawrence viola, Akua Dixon cello). Around the 30th measure Harrell’s flugelhorn adds its color. A 6-or-so-bar transition theme leads to a 32-bar+ clarinet solo followed by the flugelhorn, each backed only by Lubambo’s strumming. The theme is repeated and followed by an extended coda that is capped by a clarinet-flugelhorn dialog and fade out. Harmony, melody, color, and the rhythm they produce, blend perfectly to choreograph the gentle dance of a flower petal.

Lubambo’s acoustic guitar and Tardy’s woodwind — this time tenor sax — are also used on Madrid, but the ensemble drops the strings and adds Bryan Carrott’s marimba for additional Latin and Gary Smulyan’s bass clarinet for low-register color. There is a rhythm section, consisting of Ugonna Okegwo’s bass, Yoron Israel’s slender drum set (snare and suspended cymbal), and Leon Parker on the gran cassa, or base drum. Four bars of Okegwo and Israel’s march-light snare start it off. The composition’s structure has that trademark Harrell twist of complexity. By my count, it does have sort of an AABA foundation, with the bridge also varying the orchestration. The group then plays a 4-bar descending pattern which Tardy nicely repeats to begin his opening solo. Carrott, Harrell, and Lubambo follow. Marimba Song on Labyrinth had no marimba; Madrid has marimba, but that makes me think more of Spain’s colonies than of Spain. Ask Tom!

(I noted at the end of my previous post how large ensemble studio pieces like Hot Licks On The Sidewalk from Labyrinth are per force played by quintet on the road. There is a video of Harrell, Tardy, and their Quintet playing Madrid along with Labyrinth, Bear That In Mind, and Sail Away at a club date in San Diego in 1998. Unfortunately, just in the time I have been editing this post, that video has been made private.)

The title Oasis evokes exotica, the musical pictures of faraway places and distant pasts and their associated rhythms, à la Caravan, Night In Tunisia, Santana’s Caravanserai, Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. Harrell’s Oasis is edgier, more emphatically percussive than his preceding tracks. Here we have Leon Parker on drums, Adam Cruz on cowbell, Milton Cardona on congas, the Natalie Cushman we know from the Leon Parker albums on shaker, and two bassists, Okegwo and the Andy Gonzalez from the Bronx who is so ubiquitous on Latin recordings. Danilo Perez is playing a very percussive piano, as well as some harmonium. Dewey Redman, who doubles with Tardy on tenor sax (Tardy also plays some clarinet) and who solos first after the brief and almost theme-less theme, is, by definition, edgy. Harrell also solos, forsaking the flugelhorn for the brassier trumpet.

Our travel guide Harrell then takes us from the dry Middle Eastern desert to the steamy Caribbean. Caribe is played by the same ensemble as Oasis, except that Perez is out and Adam Cruz switches from cowbell to steel drum (aka steelpan) to give the number its distinctive Trinidadian stamp. Cruz plays the steelpan on one of my favorite Leon Parker numbers, Ray of Light (previous post), and Natalie Cushman here plays clavé as well as shaker. Dewey Redman’s tenor is the lead voice in a suspense-building introduction that ends in a pause before Cruz’s steelpan comes on with the melody. Redman is the only soloist. Petals Danse. Caribe. I like the grammatical and semantic ambiguity in these titles. And in composing Caribe I have a hard time believing Harrell wasn’t thinking of Caribee Joe!

Doo Bop‘s jazz rhythm is given away by its title, but it is Harrell bop (and more bop than doo-wop, though Harrell, like myself, grew up hearing plenty of 50s doo-wop on the radio). Doo Bop is played by a jazz quintet, except technically by sextet, as Redman and Tardy again double up on tenor. Solos by Redman, with Danilo Perez’s comping and subsequent solo sounding very Monkish, and then Harrell and Tardy. Bop rhythm courtesy of Okegwo and Parker on drums.

Exit In, you might say, signals the exit from the stage of one troupe of musicians and the entrance of another, though this theatrical metaphor almost certainly wasn’t what Harrell had in mind with his paradoxical title. Manent: Harrell (flugelhorn throughout), Lubambo, Tardy; exeunt: Redman, Smulyan, Okegwo & Parker (exception: Recitation); entrant: David Sánchez woodwinds, Mike Stern electric guitar, David Finck bass, Duduka De Fonseca drums, Valtinho Anastacio congas and percussion. If this sixth of ten tracks marks in some way the album’s Second Act, in mood it cycles back to the “pretty” of Petals Danse. Exit In‘s distinct color comes from the pairing of Lubambo’s acoustic with Mike Stern’s electric guitar and from the addition of an oboe (David Kassoff). The pretty and the color manifests themselves in the subtle call and response nature of the theme and again in the solos: Lubambo, Stern, Kassoff, Tardy (clarinet), and Harrell. Stern is featured in an extended coda .

Recitation. Iterum entrant: Okegwo and Parker, Regina Carter and Ron Lawrence. Bassoon (Makanda Ken McIntyre), Regina Carter’s violin, and Ron Lawrence’s viola define the pallet and introduce the recitation’s theme, a theme whose Harrell twist is the harmony. Harrell’s flugelhorn joins in. Some Parker beats help kick off Tardy’s hot tenor solo and reignite it after an ensemble overlay. Harrell comes in cool. Okegwo is the rock.

Latin, Tardy’s fine clarinet, and percussion — now supplied by Duduka De Fonseca on drums and Valtinho Anastacio on congas and other percussion — are back for Las Almas. One time through the playful, brief theme and on to the solos: Tardy, Lubambo, Harrell, Finck (nice!), and Da Fonseca. Each solo breaks into double time.

Harrell adds Cinco Quatro to his rhythm and jazz’s 5/4 repertory. Color: David Sánchez’s soprano. The rhythm comes again from Da Fonseca and Anastacio’s congas, with help from Lubambo and Finck. Tres solos: Sanchez, Harrell, Lubambo.

A joyful samba of love — why don’t we call it Samba Do Amor — completes what I am calling Act II, with Lubambo’s acoustic paired again with Stern’s electric, Harrell’s flugelhorn with Sánchez’s tenor sax, plus the rhythm team of Finck, Da Fonseca, and Anastacio. Stern, Harrell, and Sánchez solo, the latter as the engineers fade out …

and leave behind Harrell’s innovative take on the art of rhythm.


Tracks and Tributes

Harrell was in great demand and he participated in seemingly almost countless recordings, but often only on a few tracks.

Don Sebesky I Remember Bill: A Tribute to Bill Evans

Harrell was part of Bill Evans’s beautiful and touching final studio recording, We Will Meet Again (1979). So, as arranger & conductor Don Sebesky notes in his I Remember Bill tribute to Evans, Harrell was an appropriate pick to be one of the contributing musicians. Sebesky was especially known for the commercially successful orchestral backgrounds he did for Creed Taylor, such as Wes Montgomery’s Bumpin’ (1965).

My map shows I Remember Bill as Harrell’s first sideman recording following The Art of Rhythm, but actually they overlapped, temporally and otherwise. They are both RCA albums, both recorded at Sound on Sound Recording (aka Sound on Sound Studios) in New York, both engineered by Jay Newland. The Art of Rhythm was recorded on May 29 and 30, June 30, and July 22 and 28 (1997). I Remember Bill was recorded in a series of sessions from June through July, but the sessions that included Harrell were probably those of June 4 or 9 — the subsequent sessions were for overlaying the background strings, percussion, brass, woodwinds, and vocals, and in fact I Remember Bill is very much an exercise in color just as is The Art of Rhythm.

For his tribute, Sebesky chose a mix of Evans originals, standards Evans liked to play, and two pieces he himself wrote. He assembled several different groups of musicians. The group for the three tracks Harrell is on — Evans’s Waltz for Debby, Miles’s So What, the standard Autumn Leaves — consisted of the familiar duo of Harrell and Joe Lovano, plus Larry Coryell on guitar, Marc Johnson on bass, Joe LaBarbera on drums, plus brass and woodwinds. So What also adds Sue Evans on percussion (she played percussion with Jimmy Madison and Harrell on Mark Murphy’s 1982 The Artistry of Mark Murphy) and Dave Samuels on vibraphone; Autumn Leaves adds Dennis Mackrel as an additional drummer.

The album’s opening track, Evans’s iconic Waltz For Debby, makes it immediately clear that, as I said, this is an exercise in arranging. Perhaps overly arranged, nice solos from Lovano and Harrell (ditto on their other two tracks), was my first impression, but the album really is nice listening, and it certainly makes you want to go back and listen to your Bill Evans records again. The other musicians are also great and include Toots Thielemans and Harrell pals Lee Konitz and a personal favorite of mine, Bob Brookmeyer. I think my favorite track is Evans’s Peace Piece (Hubert Laws on flute, Dave Samuels vibraphone, Joe Passaro on various percussion instruments {crotale, maraca, glockenspiel, cricket, gong, scrape cymbal, tympani}, with a background of strings, French horn, and woodwinds).

The album has the added bonus at the end of an excerpt from an interview with Evans. In the interview, Evans describes himself as “a very analytical person.” “I think one of the reasons that maybe a lot of younger pianists, developing pianists, look to me is because I have put my music together so carefully and with such logic and analytical intelligence that they can benefit from it in that way.” This reminds me of someone.

My own shrine to Bill Evans. I will probably never end up taking the piano lessons I sometimes contemplate, despite Mark Levine’s The Jazz Piano Book and the beloved Christmas carols of my childhood beckoning me on the stand.

Fred Hersch & Friends The Duo Album

Harrell was back at Sound on Sound Studios August 22 to lay down a duet with pianist Fred Hersch, as part of Hersch’s Fred Hersch & Friends: The Duo Album. This was the second album Hersch did for Classical Action as a fundraiser in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

“The CD you now hold is an outgrowth of Last Night When We Were Young: The Ballad Album, a 1994 release that I produced and played on to benefit Classical Action: Performing Arts Against AIDS. I was deeply gratified that so many world-class jazz artists were willing to donate a ballad performance to raise money for AIDS services and education, and was delighted in the CD’s enormous success on all levels. When it came out, many of my other friends in the jazz community let me know that they would love to contribute to any similar project in the future, and now I have quite happily taken some of them up on their offers.”

Fred Hersch, liner notes to The Duo Album

One such was Tom Harrell. As Hersch also explains in the liner notes, he and each duet partner picked a standard, a key, and a tempo and, without rehearsal or sheet music, rolled the tape. He and Harrell decided on Gene De Paul and Johnny Mercer’s uncomplicated romantic love song Namely You (if you want to warm up to the instrumental interpretation by hearing the lyrics, try this one from Carmen McRae). Nice. And so the other numbers — you can see who the contributors were on the album cover. And I appreciate their good will. Like so many others, I lost a friend dear to me since childhood to AIDS, and I admit the experience left a permanent scar of bitterness in my psyche regarding the cruelty of nature and the cruelty of many human beings.

Gregory Tardy Serendipity

But on to happier thoughts from Greg (Gregory) Tardy. Tardy played on The Art of Rhythm, toured with Harrell in 1997-1998, and, for his own major label debut in September of 1997, Serendipity on Impulse!, he in turn employed Harrell as one of two trumpeters for the date (the other was Russell Gunn). Harrell plays on only one track, Tardy’s “very complicated 12-bar blues with an introduction” (in the liner notes Tardy supplies background for each track); Tardy calls it The Fractar Question after his nickname. Only one track, that is, unless you get the version of the album distributed in Europe. This one has a tenth track titled Talking With Tom.; it also lists this track in the liner notes, but without any notation from Tardy. The track and any mention of it are altogether omitted from the American distribution, why, I have no idea (my American copy is for sale, if anyone is interested!). The rhythm duo on the album is Reginald Veal on bass and Eric Harland drums. Piano duties, like trumpet duties, are also split, Aaron Goldberg on some tracks (including The Fractar Question), Mulgrew Miller on others (including Talking With Tom).

Serendipity was another album engineered by Joe Ferla, by the way.

I really like Tardy’s sound. He was one of a fine crop of young tenor saxophonists emerging on the scene in the 1990s, like James Carter, Chris Potter, Mark Turner, Tim Armacost, Eric Alexander, Randy Gibbons, …)

Jim Hall By Arrangement

In this period we’ve already seen seen two conspicuous exercises in arrangement, The Art of Rhythm and Don Sebesky’s I Remember Bill. In early 1998, “by arrangement,” Harrell entered the studio once again with Jim Hall (I previously covered the 1981 Jim Hall/David Matthews Concierto De Aranjuez album, the beautiful These Rooms from 1988, and the lovely Skylark dialog with Hall in 1995).

“[Hall] stripped away the assumptions and cultural expectations of prior performances, leaving the music bare so that he could create unique arrangements that focus on the shapes and sounds of each individual song … One of the most unusual things about Jim’s treatments lies in his choice of instrumentation.”

Devra Hall, liner notes to her father’s By Arrangement

And the arrangements are indeed unique. Hall mixes various combinations of brass (two trumpets, two trombones, French horn, tuba) and strings (six violas, six cellos) with the individual sounds of “special guests”: “Tommy” Harrell (as Devra Hall calls him) on four tracks, Joe Lovano, Pat Metheny, and Greg Osby on one track each (Gordon Jenkins’s Goodbye, John Lewis’s Django, Russ Freeman’s The Wind, respectively), and The New York Voices on Bill Evans’s Waltz for Debby and The Wind (along with Osby). There are in fact a couple points of intersection with Sebesky’s I Remember Bill. Sebesky used The New York Voices on Evans’s Very Early and both have highly unusual arrangements of Evans’s Waltz for Debby.

Ruby My Dear draws heavily on the brass section. Marcus Rojas’s tuba, accompanied only by Hall, plays Monk’s melody. Next Jim Pugh’s trombone picks up the melody voice (Pugh also conducts the brass section), while the tuba switches to counterpoint. Finally the melody voice is handed off again (at 1:24 in) while at the same time the entire brass section joins in. This final handoff of the melody: Is it not a handoff, but a continuation of the trombone? Or is it a trumpet or a flugelhorn, and is it Tom (the two trumpeters in the brass section are Jamie Finegan and Lew Soloff)? My ears were not good enough to tell, so I ran it by my friend Stani, who is a trumpet-playing Harrell enthusiast. Stani is sure it is Tom, though Stani thinks on trumpet, not flugelhorn, despite the liner notes, which list Harrell as on flugelhorn on all four of the tracks he is on. There are brief solos by Hall and by the session bassist Scott Colley (Colley was Hall’s regular bassist, and he was the bassist on Hall and Harrell’s Skylark), but the solos are sandwiched between some “zany” and “free-flowing” ensemble arrangements (in Devra Hall’s description).

Art Song is one of two Hall compositions on the album. It is in waltz time and starts as a duet, Harrell doing the melody and Hall the counterpoint. Tuba and brass intervene but maintain the composition’s gentleness. Harrell and Hall solo and are supported by the shifting rhythm patterns of Colley and Hall’s long-time drummer Terry Clarke. Hall’s solo is followed by more ensemble brass, before Harrell returns to restate the melody.

Jim Hall has a long history playing with Paul Desmond, and Hall lovingly introduces Desmond’s Wendy. It is scored for Hall, Harrell’s flugelhorn, and brass chorus, with Colley and Clarke. If arrangements were to have titles of their own, Devra Hall writes, this one would have to be called “To Paul With Love.” Harrell is the perfect partner for it.

Alex Brofsky’s French horn, accompanied by Colley, introduces Benny Golson’s Whisper Not. Hall picks up the melody as the tuba joins. The piece is structured as an interplay between Hall and the brass, with solos from Hall and Harrell. Mid-song and again at the end, the musicians (twelve of them, according to Devra) burst out in a unison “Hey!”, so it seems everyone was having fun!

For heavily arranged sessions like The Art of Rhythm, I Remember Bill, and By Arrangement, I admit I have to be in the mood, but when I am, they are very rewarding.

David Berkman Handmade

Handmade was 39-year-old David Berkman’s debut album on a U.S. label (Palmetto Records; he and Eliot Zigmund and Mike Richmond had recorded Dark Street for a French label in 1994). As Jim Macnie observes in his liner notes, the musicians Berkman gathered for the session — Harrell, Steve Wilson on alto and soprano sax, Ugonna Okegwo on bass, Brian Blade drums — were not a working band. “When you’re not recording a longstanding band,” offers Berkman, “it’s harder to make a personal statement. In New York, there’s a feeling that everybody winds up being on everybody else’s record. That makes things a bit predictable. I was trying to make this date a bit more conceptual, coming up with tunes that would prompt the guys in different directions.”

Berkman’s career trajectory fits the familiar pattern of hometown → Berklee → New York. Growing up in Cleveland, he was influenced to take up music by his jazz-loving father (in an interview, Berkman recalls his father had precisely 121 Oscar Peterson records!). He attended Berklee college for a few semesters as an exchange student while working on a major in English Literature at the University of Michigan. One night he saw the alto saxophonist Bob Mover, his ensemble leader at Berklee, playing with the pianist Albert Dailey, and on his walk home at 3:00 am decided on jazz as his I’ll-never-get-rich-doing-it career. He returned to Cleveland to hone his chops and moved to New York in 1985.

Returning to New York after a stint on the road (1989) with the Woody Herman Orchestra, Berkman got to know Kenny Werner. He lived for a while in Werner’s building,; he studied with Werner; and he started subbing occasionally for Werner, among other places, Monday nights at the Village Vanguard and Tom Harrell’s band. Berkman then toured with Harrell, both with the band (Don Braden, Larry Grenadier, Tony Reedus) and as a duo, around ’95 – ’96.

It was at this time that Werner was hatching the idea for his 1996 book Effortless Mastery — see my previous post. The approach in that book evolved from Werner’s teaching experience, and Berkman credits Werner with helping him overcome some issues he was having. In a December, 1998 review of Handmade in JazzTimes, Bill Milkowski quotes Berkman as saying “I hate ever telling anybody what to do at all. I just try to let the form of the tunes provide a direction for everybody to interact.” Milkowski continues, “Drummer Blade responds well to that open-ended attitude, helping to shape the music with his highly interactive touch. Harrell is in especially fine form on Handmade, taking up the challenge of Berkman’s harmonically intriguing vehicles. In his own probing solos, Berkman is coming more from the introspective Keith Jarrett-Kenny Werner school than a bebop orientation. ‘Those guys are about erasing their ego and just being a conduit that music flows through,’ says David, who actually managed to break through some creative blockage while studying privately with Werner. ‘Working with Kenny was a great experience in terms of opening up and learning to take the editor out of control, and let whatever happens happen. Kenny’s a total paragon of that kind of thing.’ “

In a generous and warm conversation, Berkman explained to me that this was mostly about the art of relaxation; he had studied some with the classical pianist Sophia Rosoff in New York (as had Brad Mehldau, Fred Hersch, Barry Harris, Ethan Iverson, and others) and, though I may not have been following David’s train of thought correctly, I believe Milkowski’s “creative blockage” had something to do with being stuck between classical and jazz. In any case, Berkman told me, this breakthrough happened well before Effortless Mastery was published and well before he himself ever got around to reading the book.

“Handmade is flecked with novel moves”

So Jim Macnie in the liner notes, and yes, though “flecked with” is an odd verb choice!

The first fleck, if you will, is the humor in the title Not A Christmas Song, whose opening measures sound uncannily like, well, almost a Christmas song. In the above quote, Bill Milkowski singled out drummer Brian Blade’s responsiveness to Berkman’s open-ended approach, and Blade’s kit introduces the not-a-carol and keeps it rhythmically interesting throughout. In fact my twin themes of Innovation and Rhythm in this Harrell period nicely apply to Handmade (the album). The subtle theme of Not A Christmas Song is played twice, and then Harrell takes a beautiful solo, followed by Berkman.

Some haunting work from Berkman and interesting percussion again from Blade introduce the almost chant-like title track. Wilson finally joins in on soprano to repeat the theme and then solo — a solo Berkman calls “so mysterious, just these blips – ambient sounds” — and these blips from Wilson take the song to its end.

Listening to Pennies makes me momentarily think I inadvertently switched to a Leon Parker side. Berkman plays a piano “prepared” with copper pennies between the strings. Harrell is out on these last two tracks.

Berkman laughed when I confessed to him that I didn’t realize, until I re-read Macnie’s liner notes, that at the beginning of the track Brian Blade’s sticks (mallets?) are actually playing the staccato no-frills head to the iconic Ellington-Coltrane vehicle Take The Coltrane. Blade, Okegwo, and Berkman slip into a trio romp. Harrell is out on this one, too … no, wait!, he comes on with another great solo, followed by another great one from Wilson (alto) that ends by more or less quoting Coltrane (now THAT I recognized!) and then Blade bookends it.

The always lyrically brilliant Harrell is featured on Berkman’s ballad Sense of Loss. Berkman tells Macnie about this one, “[Harrell] goes for a note that doesn’t fully come out of the horn. And then he goes for it again and it’s the last note of the song. It’s so tragic sounding — one of my favorite moments on the record.”

Is it possible one-time English Literature major David Berkman had Willa Cather (the American novelist of the Great Plains) on his mind when he wrote Tiny Prairie Landscape? It is a nice quiet vehicle for his solo piano.

Berkman originally recorded his Fairy Tale on the trio Dark Street album (above). You can hear the first 38 seconds of that recording and get a meticulous analysis of the composition, as well as the original lead sheet, from Okegwo plays the descending root quarter notes of the 8-bar introduction (taking the optional jump of an octave in the fifth measure as allowed for in the lead sheet) and is joined on the repeat by Berkman and Blade doing some really cool note and beat drops. Two more repeats and then 8 bars with Berkman playing the chords. The theme proper — Okegwo continues with the quarter note vamp throughout — is then a 16-bar A section, an 8-bar B section beginning fortissimo and ending with a decrescendo, then a pivot rest bar. I believe both horns are playing this theme, but the solos are two choruses each from Wilson (alto) and Berkman, followed by some nifty work by Blade.

The flecks just keep on coming. Berkman has a very sly sense of harmony. In fact he is also an educator (Queens College) and author of three books that include The Jazz Harmony Book. His compositional approach reminds me very much of Harrell’s — solid foundations for improvisation, but most often with an unusual structural or harmonic twist. In my conversation with him Berkman revealed himself to be intimately familiar with Harrell’s writing, not just in the current period, but over the decades (he gave me a harmonic analysis of Terristris that was way over my head), and he mentioned a number of his own compositions that had a Harrell-did-this or Harrell-did-that in mind. Without guide wheels, I am not even going to try to describe the structure of Slides (or the inspiration for the title). Wilson is back on soprano, and he and Harrell solo over Berkman’s repetition of the theme’s vamp. The horns take on the vamp for Berkman’s solo, and before I forget to mention it, all his solos on the album are great.

Even the sly wit of Berkman’s titles remind me of Harrell. Maybe It’ll Blow Over fades in in medias res as a straight-ahead fast trio number … again until Wilson (soprano) and Harrell join in in a frenetic horn dialog that turns into a Harrell solo that returns to the dialog and a fade out. It blew over, but I didn’t want it to!

Later that Same Day is another ballad vehicle for Berkman’s solo piano.

Tom Harrell is the second piece on Handmade for which has lead sheets and a meticulous analytical breakdown. The score calls it a bossa; seeing that, I listen again and can now hear it in Blade’s drumming, particularly in Blade’s solo, but the bossa-ness is not super obvious. Also not obvious is the song’s structure, either in the theme proper or in the solos. The melody “threads its way” over 25 measures that are divided into a 9-bar A section, which is further broken down by Berkman into 3 and 6, and 8-bar B and C sections. Finally, according to the analysis, there is no key center (“but a lot of colorful voice leading throughout”). Chord progression observations such as “stepwise root motion that breaks off in unexpected directions, such as in the third and fourth measures of the C section: Cm7, B♭m7, and Am7 are followed by D♭7 going to Cmaj7” are way over my head, but I certainly hear the piece as harmonically rich. I enjoy, for example, the harmonizing role Wilson has as Harrell plays the lead voice in the theme statement.

Having said that and then leaving all that aside, when I hear this piece I feel like I can almost hum it, and the execution is “standard,” i.e., statement of theme (with one repeat), two-chorus solos from Harrell, Wilson (alto), and Berkman, restatement of theme and final coda. Tom Harrell is really an ingenious tribute to Harrell’s compositional style.

Harrell is out on In Passing, which features Wilson on soprano again.

Twelve imaginative flecks, enhanced for me by some lead sheets and a delightful conversation with Berkman that shed light on his professional and personal relation to Harrell.

The Derek Bronston Group Longing

Harrell plays as a guest on the title track to young guitarist Derek Bronston’s debut album, Longing . Technically, the album is by The Derek Bronston Group, consisting of Lisa Parrott on alto and baritone sax, Chris Lightcap on bass, and Heinrich Köbberling on drums & percussion, plus some guests such as Harrell.

“New York City-based guitarist Derek Bronston is active in the city’s rock and jazz scenes, playing in his band The Hush and working as a sideman with artists like Cecil Taylor and Billy Bang, as well as in various ensembles. His solo debut, Longing, was released in 1999.”

Heather Phares, for Apple Music

“Derek Lee Bronston, guitarist, vocalist and songwriter has been on the scene since the 90’s playing and recording both as a band leader and sideman equally. He has received consistent praise from the Jazz, Rock and Americana/Country scenes. As well as getting extensive airplay and critical acclaim as a leader with his Jazz CD Longing (featuring Tom Harrell), with rock bands The Hush and Mostley and more recently with his Americana/Country recording “Empty River,” Derek Lee has played as a sideman with Cecil Taylor, Billy Bang, The Great Shakes, Heather Greene, Cooley’s Hot Box and Branford Marsalis to name a few.”

It isn’t easy finding information about Bronston, including anything biographical. He recorded Longing in late 1998 for Hacate Entertainment Group, a company that was founded in 1989 in New York City by Sarah Chanderia and is now headquartered in Oslo. The Derek Bronston Group released a second album in 2001 called Ebb. According to Hacate’s website, Bronston licensed two songs for the American television series Felicity (1998-2002), and according to the movie database IMDb Bronston wrote music for a movie called Blood Kiss: Soul of a Woman (“things go wrong for 30-year-old Beth when her ex-lover returns offering her a chance at a darker life where one survives off the souls of others”). Most interesting for my Rhythm theme, Bronston has a cameo appearance playing with “free” artists Billy Bang and drummer Denis Charles in Véronique N. Doumbé’s touching documentary film about Charles (Denis A. Charles: An Interrupted Conversation). (I knew I knew that name Denis Charles. Looking back at my Sonny Rollins RCA collection, I see Sonny added Charles and Charles’s brother Frank — the brothers lived in Harlem but were from the Virgin Islands — along with percussionist Willie Rodriguez for the tracks Don’t Stop The Carnival and Brown Skin Girl, part of the What’s New sessions that were Rollins’s foray into Caribbean and Latin American rhythm, with other numbers such as Jungoso and Bluesongo that had Candido on congas and bongos.)

Other than that they are both part of the New York scene (David Berkman said “In New York, there’s a feeling that everybody winds up being on everybody else’s record”), I don’t know what Bronston’s connection to Harrell was. The single (title) track with Harrell is OK — it’s interesting how Harrell plays a single track and becomes “featured” — but I can’t really get into the music. I find myself feeling exactly the way I felt about Harrell’s recordings with the then New York-based guitarist Shinobu Itoh: Why?

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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