|Tom Harrell. Credit: Claus Willemer. (from tomharrell.com)|
(Ronnie Scott’s, Tuesday 28th May 2013 (2nd of two performances). Review by Andy Boeckstaens)
Few people would fit the “jazz hero” mould less than Tom Harrell. And yet, the 66-year-old, white-bearded musician with a well-documented mental illness is a god to many trumpet players; listeners young and old came out in force for his two rare shows at Ronnie Scott’s this week.
Harrell is revered, not for playing fast, high or loudly, but for his supremacy at fashioning astonishingly beautiful aural shapes with a tone of immense gentleness and depth. The audience at Ronnie’s may have been familiar with his compositions including Sail Away and the superb arrangements on the recording Time’s Mirror, while many will have remembered his fine work in the 70’s alongside Bob Berg in Horace Silver’s band, and a decade later with Phil Woods. His essence, however, is most apparent in the small groups that he leads. His current quintet – together since 2006 – operates with the calm, quiet authority that comes from the best, most experienced groups and it represents a pinnacle in his magnificent career.
Harrell, characteristically, stood with his head bowed as Trances began with a solo by Johnathan Blake. The piece unfolded, the two horn-men sprang into life and London-born tenor player Wayne Escoffery launched into a fast, complex solo that echoed Coltrane’s Eastern influences. Embraceable You, a duet for the bass of Ugonna Okegwo (also originally from London) and flugelhorn, was the one piece not composed by Harrell. It was notable because the melody was virtually unrecognisable and the leader lapsed briefly into cliché, but even that came with style. Elsewhere, his improvisations were typically crammed with quicksilver runs, audacious pauses and brief quotations, constructed with masterful elan. The first set ended with a funky, earthy Terrestris that, in sharp contrast to Harrell’s incisiveness, brought another torrent of ideas from Escoffery.
The second half included the lovely ballad Present – played as a quartet without Escoffery – and highlighted Harrell’s majestic tone on the piece’s stately descending line. Using Fender Rhodes, Danny Grissett was hugely impressive, and throughout the gig he delivered work that sparkled with restrained energy and assurance. The second-ever performance was given of a new composition, Sound Image, during which spiky phrases were mixed with an eloquent fluency. At a point in Harrell’s solo on Del Centro, there was an instant of sheer magic: he produced a high-ish note, held for a few seconds, that was unspeakably, outrageously brilliant. Fleetingly out of context, it suddenly became inevitable, irreplaceable and perfect, a square peg thrust into a round hole with no gaps around the edges. Goosebumps were vindicated by gasps from around the room, followed at the end of the solo by the kind of cheers that are reserved for the biggest thrills. Here, Whitney Balliett’s seldom-realised “sound of surprise” was made flesh. Such moments earn Tom Harrell his place among the greatest of trumpet players.
Tom Harrell – trumpet, flugelhorn
Wayne Escoffery– tenor saxophone
Danny Grissett – piano
Ugonna Okegwo – bass
Johnathan Blake – drums
Trances (Tom Harrell)
Bouquet (Tom Harrell)
Embraceable You (George Gershwin)
Terrestris (Tom Harrell)
Del Centro (Tom Harrell)
Present (Tom Harrell)
Sound Image (Tom Harrell)
No. 5 (Tom Harrell)