Over the last decade, Tom Harrell has turned out about one HighNote album per year as a leader, trumpeter, and flugelhornist. A quintet of regular players usually serves as the core of these annual offerings, though not without deviations; sometimes he’ll double up his instruments, leave off a mainstay, like the piano, or add vocals or a guitar.
Shifts in band configurations are endlessly intriguing, of course, but equally compelling is the sinew that binds a musician’s oeuvre together. In Harrell’s case, two opposing forces—an orchestrator’s ear for form and a horn player’s flair for improvisation—characterize even the simplest of his compositions. Take “Duet” on Infinity, Harrell’s 2019 release with his latest quintet, a guitar-based rhythm section with sax and trumpet. At just over one and a half minutes long, this biphonic musical sketch between Harrell and saxophonist Mark Turner could just as easily be an outtake from a symphonic performance in a concert hall as from a bebop showdown on the bandstand. Fascinating.
With his more complex pieces these forces play out just as potently. On “Dublin” the horns sync in duet over a Celtic pedal in the guitar before breaking out into increasingly intense improvs; the pedal morphs into a lilting chromatic figure that overtakes the band; this figure becomes the theme against which Harrell’s final solo—a galloping melodic riff—closes out the tune.
In the middle ground between “Duet” and “Dublin” lie Harrell’s more conventionally structured pieces: tunes with clearly articulated motivic ideas that bookend the solo sections (“The Fast,” “Blue,” “Coronation”). But if Harrell opts for a common strophic form, he’s going to shake it up somewhere else. For instance, the heads of these compositions—tuneful, rhythmically dynamic, and a little bit tricky—set a high bar for the soloists. How to maintain Harrell’s alacritous pace without betraying his melodic design?
Harrell works with players he knows well, even if he’s mixing and matching from earlier ensembles. Their playing flows holistically from his writing, with only the slightest of shifts between the composed and improvised sections. These natural transitions speak to a solid group rapport, where the soloists have a stake in the compositional act. In their solos they choose to play in Harrell’s musical language rather than assert their virtuosic separateness—no small statement.
In the liner notes, journalist Michael J. West reports that Harrell takes the title of the album from his meditative musings on the endless scope of the universe, a concept reflected in the mirror tunnel image on the album cover. At the center of the image’s repeating frames stands Harrell with his trumpet—a finite thing, but a conduit of Harrell’s celestial tone and a good place to start such musings.
Personnel: Tom Harrell, trumpet, flugelhorn; Mark Turner, tenor sax; Charles Altura, electric and acoustic guitars; Ben Street, bass; Johnathan Blake, drums; Adam Cruz, percussion (3).
Tracks: The Fast; Dublin; Hope; Coronation; Folk Song; Blue; Ground; The Isle; Duet; Taurus. (1:05:51)
(Reprinted from the August 2019 issue of Downbeat magazine)