An Improviser Brings His Trumpet

Tom Harrell at the Village Vanguard
By BEN RATLIFF
OCT. 15, 2014
The trumpeter Tom Harrell has been doing this a long time, through various schools and vogues: He can play slow and fast and in between, sometimes all within a single line. But his improvising is always temperate and proportionate. He keeps you on the hook, but doesn’t shout, doesn’t stop the clock. Plenty of improvisers are specialists in now-ness, revealing a solo as a series of events, or present-tense flashes. With Mr. Harrell, it’s all one event. He’s always processing ahead and behind, and you feel as if you’re hearing the whole of the narrative at all times, from was to is to will be.

Mr. Harrell, now 68, has been one of the best composers, improvisers and bandleaders in jazz since the late ’80s, and he knows how to make contrasts sound exciting: playing slowly over a fast tempo, playing quietly but with power. But he also uses the contrast of his own sound set against that of the groups he’s playing in.

He’s been consistent in his performing and recording, especially over the last seven years: an album every year, more or less, full of original writing. If you’ve come to take his presence for granted, his two-week stand at the Village Vanguard can put a stop to that. Hearing him last Thursday with one band, and in an early set this Tuesday with a very different one, revealed something about his productivity — he had prepared new music for both bands just for this occasion — but also about his flexibility.

Last week, it was Mr. Harrell’s seven-year-old quintet, with the pianist Danny Grissett, the tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, the bassist Ugonna Okegwo and the drummer Johnathan Blake. It represented the delivered-on promise of a working band; hear it on record — especially “Number Five” (HighNote) — or see it the next time it comes around. Outside a few ballads and lighter-toned songs, with the musicians all together and the tempo raised high, the group rode hard, in continuous gusts of sound. Mr. Blake’s drumming is powerful, steady and full of funk, a deluxe continuity. It powers the rest of the band’s sound, which is thick, heavily swinging, lived in, casually hard, deeply coordinated and quite amazing. Mr. Harrell’s meticulousness fit in wherever it could, in written passages and solos with thinner backgrounds. Because Mr. Harrell isn’t a power player, the group shifts around to accommodate him; the contrast becomes a logical and coherent part of the overall picture. That’s bandleading.

This week, Mr. Harrell is playing with a new quartet called Trip, with the tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, the drummer Adam Cruz, and Mr. Okegwo again on bass. (Its first album, also called “Trip,” came out on HighNote in August.) It’s a more open and new-sounding group, in some ways. There isn’t a piano or a chordal instrument to fill the spaces. Mr. Turner’s sound, thinner and more pointed that Mr. Escoffery’s, gets away from the bundles and curls of bebop rhythm, toward long notes achieving slow arcs or tailing off in his highest register. Mr. Cruz’s drumming tends to be lighter, and more episodic or wavelike, than Mr. Blake’s. And the band played an extended suite, “The Adventures of a Quixotic Character,” based on “Don Quixote,” which changed moods frequently: extended unaccompanied solos, short interludes, steady and harmonized Gerry Mulligan-like lines between saxophone and trumpet, airy slow movements, vamp sections.

But Trip wasn’t playing chamber music. Mr. Harrell could get hot against the coolness around him, and vice versa; the group’s intensity may be lighter or more broken up, but it was there, and, in its own way, just as physical, interactive and hard charging as last week’s band. As a soloist, Mr. Harrell, with his restrained and meticulous sound, may connect with Trip in obvious ways. But as a bandleader, he finds a way to subvert the incorporation of that sound, or to encourage the band to play against its own type.