Album reviews

Tom Harrell – ‘Oak Tree’

Tom Harrell – Oak Tree

(HighNote HCD 7332. Album review by Peter Vacher

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Much is made in the literature of US trumpeter/composer Tom Harrell’s ongoing struggle with schizophrenia and his success in building a valid career as both sideman and leader despite this disability. I do recall seeing Harrell at the Brecon Jazz Festival years ago heading a front-line which included the late Bob Berg on tenor and Steve Turre on trombone and being blown away by their collective authority and his exhilarating creativity. There was no need to make allowances: these were performances by Harrell and his friends to remember for ever.

That was then, this is now. Harrell is presently in his mid-seventies and it’s pleasing to report that there appears to be no diminution in his prowess, rather a re-affirmation of his remarkable creativity. In a discography of near-overwhelming quantity and variation, this new album, the first to appear since Infinity in 2019, is just the latest in over thirty to come out under his own name. This time, it’s co-produced by Harrell and his wife – she’s the cover photographer, too – and all eleven songs are written and published by him. What’s more, there’s no need for protection from other horn players here, for this is Harrell out front, the quartet pleasingly animated, the whole enterprise meshing together splendidly.

The first piece ‘Evoorg’ (try it in reverse) opens with a stabbed, single figure over a turbulent rhythm pattern and seems to suggest ‘So What’, only for a new, more detailed phrase to overtake that idea, as Harrell sets out on an intricate improvisation, each puzzle proposed soon solved, the tone momentarily fragile before gaining strength. Venezuelan pianist Luis Perdomo moves into gear and the whole performances entrances. ‘Fivin’ has Perdomo at the Fender Rhodes and works as a kind of fanfare, Harrell in zippy mode, Cruz breaking up the beat, while the title track is a zig-zag, elegantly-harmonised amble, Harrell’s solo Miles-ian in its gravitas. ‘Tribute’ is just that, referencing Jobim and Zawinul among other past linkages. On ‘Zatoichi’ (don’t ask), Harrel overdubs himself in a two-trumpet dialogue which seems to precipitate mayhem, Cruz muscling in as Ugonna Okegwo prepares for Harrell’s re-entry and abrupt finish. ‘Improv’ is a bebop-sound-a-like, Perdomo relishing the bassist’s time frame and Adam Cruz’s swing, as Harrell flies in, his solo as exuberant as any on the album, a second shadow line pasted in. ‘Shadows’ is another ballad, with overdubs, Harrell’s flugel poised and sensitive.

In that a full evaluation of this album and its contents might test the patience of both of this publication’s editor and its readers, let’s just say that this feels like a master-work, compelling in both the variety of material on offer and the inventive responses of all four musicians. Ethan Iverson’s erudite note is just the icing on the cake.

Tom Harrell (tp, fgh), Luis Perdomo (p, kbd), Ugonna Okegwo (b), Adam Cruz (d). Recorded New York, 24-25 November 2020

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