Colors of a Dream: A Tom Harrell Experience

By RA Monaco

September 1, 2014

The distinctive sound of this ensemble is derived from Tom Harrell’s compositions and the notable chemistry between these musicians. 

Those who have some familiarity with the storied trumpet-composer Tom Harrell know "typical" isn’t what keeps jazz listeners fascinated and wanting more.  A sensitive and excitingly complex drummer, two magnificent bassists, two fire-breathing saxophonists and the dark sounding flugelhorn of Harrell, isn’t the typical instrumentation of most jazz groups.   But that’s Harrell’s newest group—Colors of a Dream.

Their performance at this year’s Chicago Jazz Festival might be described as something like “50-First Dates,” to borrow a cliché.  There was a constant and vague familiarity in the music.  Yet, it was different—new, fresh and exciting too.  Maybe the familiar was in the roots of the musicians and Harrell himself—but there was nothing unimaginative about Harrell’s compositions or the ensemble’s risky melodic improvisations.

As a composer and arranger, Harrell has works in different genres, including classical music which isn’t surprising given that he graduated from Stanford University with a music composition degree.

Live ensemble performances are always about the precise interaction between musicians but rarely is an audience given such a heightened sense of the evolving melodic risks unfolding in the performance of a composition.  Colors of a Dream had that exploring quality that drew Saturday night's audience into the probing improvisations of Harrell and the entire ensemble—you could say it was an experience never to be duplicated but likely to evolve.

Like many aspiring trumpeters, Harrell rode the buses of notable bands including Stan Kenton’s orchestra and Woody Herman’s Big Band.  He worked with the Horace Silver Quintet from 1973 to 1977 recording five albums.  He was a vital member of Phil Woods Quintet recording seven albums with him between 1983 and 1989.  Harrell was also featured on Bill Evans’ final recording, We Will Meet Again, which won a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Jazz Performance, Group.

Saturday night the Pritzker Pavilion filled to hear Colors of a Dream which Harrell debuted last year.  The piano-less and guitar-less ensemble is comprised of Harrell on trumpet and flugelhorn, Wayne Escoffrey on tenor saxophone, Jaleel Shaw on alto saxophone, Johnathan Blake on drums, Ugonna Okegwo on bass and Esperanza Spalding doubling on bass and vocal.  The distinctive sound of this ensemble is derived from Harrell’scompositions and the notable chemistry between these musicians.

The unpredictable and, at times, threatening weather forecasts didn’t discourage many and to the delight of those attending the 36th annual Chicago Jazz Festival, jazz is alive and well in Chicago.