Thursday, May 28, 2009

Pepper Adams - Part 1

“The baritone sax was as unpopular with hard-bop musicians as it was with the original boppers, and, come to that, with the swing-era saxophonists. Pepper Adams, more than anyone, came close to making it a congenial instrument in the hot-house environment of hard-bop.”
Cook & Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed. [p. 10].

“Unlike other young instrumentalists who had a variety of idols to chose from, Pepper and his baritone playing colleagues single out Harry Carney as the only salient standard in the entire jazz realm who gave form and definition to the role of the baritone in music. Although Harry was at one time virtually alone in the field, his strong leadership paved the way to startling innovations by his latter-day admirers.” – Joe Quinn


[c] Steven A. Cerra - Copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Frankly, the first time I heard Pepper Adams on baritone sax, I didn’t care for his playing very much. Pity me, but fortunately, like Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, I, too, got a second chance [and used it well, I might add].

Through my listening of his piano-less quartet and sextet, I was more accustomed to the legato, lighter, more airy sound that Gerry Mulligan produced on the instrument. Other than this exception, I thought that the baritone sax, like the bass trombone, was played by someone who sat off to the end of a section in a big band and loudly blurted out pedal tones to anchor some introductory fanfare or the closing chord of a tune.

With his gruff, growling and grumbling sound, Pepper Adams was an altogether different proposition. I didn’t know what to make of the flurry of notes that came out of his horn; my mind simply wasn’t able to absorb the creative inventions of someone whom alto saxophonist Phil Woods lovingly termed: “A be-bopper down to his socks!.”

The occasion for my first experience with Pepper’s playing occurred when he sat-in with a trio led by pianist Pete Jolly at Sherry’s, a small club on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood. Ralph Pena was the bassist and Larry Bunker was the drummer [one of my drum teachers and a lifelong friend, who was the reason I had gone down to the club]. Pepper’s playing that night was for me, just a miasma; a muddled enigma.

That all changed a few months later when a friend brought over the Mode LP [#112]- Pepper Adams Quintet [VSOP #5CD]. I’m not certain of the reason why, but Pepper broke through and spoke to me on this record – boy, did he ever.
I gather that in the months preceding this 1957 LP, Pepper and drummer Mel Lewis had been trying to keep a group together and the one on this record was a beauty with Stu Williamson’s on trumpet, Carl Perkins on piano and Leroy Vinnegar on bass.

In the mid-1950’s, along with Mel Lewis, Pepper had been on the Kenton Orchestra with its West Coast base at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa/Newport Beach, CA and subsequently with the Maynard Ferguson’s big band. Maynard was preparing to take his band back to the East Coast which was also the direction that Pepper wanted to go so he signed on.

However, while still on the West Coast, the band that Pepper and Mel had put together was very reminiscent of the one led around the same time by bassist Curtis Counce that featured a front-line of Jack Sheldon on trumpet and Harold Land on tenor saxophone. Carl Perkins was the pianist in both groups. Using the relevant pages about it in Robert Gordon’s Jazz West Coast, the Curtis Counce group was featured on JazzProfiles on June 24, 2008.

Adams and Lewis also had recorded together a year earlier in 1956 with a sextet that was primarily made up of members of the Kenton band. . This one had appeared under the album of name of Got’Cha on something called the San Francisco Jazz Records label [reissued as Fresh Sound FSR-CD 73].
Listening to these two recordings, I was able to understand what Cook & Morton meant when they stated that Pepper: “… had a dry, unsentimental tone – very different from either Serge Chaloff or Gerry Mulligan – and a penchant for full-tilt solos that gave no shred of concession to the horn’s ‘cumbersome’ reputation.” [Loc. Cit.]

Writing in http://www.allmusic.com/, Ron Wynn had this to say about Pepper Adams Quintet [Mode LP-112; VSOP CD-5]:

“Pepper Adams ranked among modern jazz's finest baritone saxophonists. His mastery of the middle and lower registers and technical acumen enabled him to play the cumbersome baritone with a speed, facility, and style usually restricted to smaller horns. This '57 quintet date featured him in a more relaxed context with West Coast jazz types like trumpeter Stu Williamson and pianist Carl Perkins. Bassist Leroy Vinnegar added his famous "walking" lines and drummer Mel Lewis provided a steady, smooth rhythmic pace, while Adams contributed two originals and did three standards in his usual impeccable fashion.”

It was the two originals on the Mode date that Wynn references – Freddie Froo and Muezzin’ – that particularly caught my attention as they appealed to me as clever melodic lines, that were very cleaning executed by Stu Williamson and Pepper and which really provided an improvisational platform for Adams’ intriguing and interesting solo inventions.

Muezzin’, in particular, with its Latin beat that jumps to straight time on the bridge of this 32-bar AABA tune, was played in a relaxed medium tempo that was very much in the West Coast Jazz style that my ears were accustomed to at the time. Perhaps this helped me to hear more clearly what - to use a musician’s phrase – “Pepper was saying” on baritone.

Also based on the 32-bar AABA song form, Freddie Froo, by contrast is an up-tempo “burner” which really shows-off Pepper’s ability to get around [i.e.: facility] on the supposedly cumbersome baritone, as well, as his penchant for hard-charging, take-no-prisoners solos in the best be-bop tradition. Put simply – whatever its unwieldy properties - the man could really play the baritone saxophone.

Continuing with the custom of also featuring the writings of others on JazzProfiles, what follows is the interview that Pepper gave to Ben Sidran which will serve as the basis for the first part of Pepper’s profile before turning to an extensive review of the Adams’ style and discography in the second part of this piece on him.
Pianist, composer and the holder of a Doctorate in American Studies from Yale University, Ben Sidran conducted a number of interviews with Jazz musicians between 1984 – 1990. Edited versions of these talks were broadcast on NPR as part of a series entitled Sidran on Record.

In 1995, Da Capo Press in New York made these available in Talking Jazz: An Oral History – 43 Jazz Conversations and what follows is Ben’s January 1986 interview with Pepper Adams [pp. 209-220].

“Baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams played with literally hundreds of key bebop musicians over the course of his career and provided a very strong alternative to the style of baritone saxophone playing that was most popular at the time, that of Gerry Mulligan. His sense of "swing," or forward progress, in his improvisation was extraordinary, and his choice of notes always seemed to be the most intelligent alternative given the harmonic possibilities of the moment. Perhaps it was the somewhat odd nature of his instrument (the baritone can look a bit awkward around the neck of stringy guy like Pepper) that kept him relatively obscure, even through the heydays of the bebop movement. Also, as he candidly remembered while we spoke, there was the issue of having to please the jazz critics. He never did try too hard to do that, and the repercussions of their negative reviews stayed with him until the end Pepper died of brain cancer several weeks after our talk.

Ben: I consider you to be one of the most literate of jazz musicians, not necessarily because you're so well read, although you may be, but because playing strikes me as being so intelligent. I'm not embarrassed to say that we first met several years ago when I ran up to you in a hotel said, "Pepper, do you remember the solo you played on Thelonious's 'Little Rootie-Tootie,' from the Town Hall Concert?" And you stopped and said, "Yes, I think I remember that."

Pepper: You know, I could hardly deny it.
Ben: And I know I went on about how literate I thought that particular was, that it struck me as being almost verbal in nature, and I asked "Does that make any sense to you?" At the time you said "Yes," but of course you were under duress from this mad fan. But does that make any sense to you today, that your solo should be seen as almost verbal?

Pepper: Oh, certainly. Yeah. I can certainly see that.

Ben: How can a saxophone solo be like the written word? In what ways?

Pepper: Well, if it flows in a logical sequence, with an occasional surprise here and there, that's almost a form of verbalization. I'd like to get conversation going about the same rate. Probably time-feeling has something to do with it, too, I would imagine.

Ben: And intonation contouring, I suppose, the way the lines move up an down, and the way the breaths are taken ...

Pepper: Yeah, certainly ...

Ben: I think also what I heard, and what I hear in the best of jazz recording is a room full of people that are very comfortable with one another an, aren't very self-conscious of what they are doing. They're not trying to hard. On that recording, you don't sound like you're trying too hard.

But let's change directions and come around through the back door on this. Let's find out some personal history, so that your musical style has a context. You're associated with the Detroit school of jazz player You spent your formative years in Detroit, Michigan ...

Pepper. Primarily so, yes ...
Ben: There's an apocryphal story that I read which places you in an instrument repair shop back in Detroit. You were a tenor player at the time And you came across this baritone saxophone and rescued it from the junk heap and made it your own.

Pepper. Well, that is apocryphal. It is not the way it actually happened. How I did fall into playing baritone, more or less, is by accident. And a repair shop enters into it. Would you like me to tell the true story for the record? ...

Ben: Absolutely, we're interested in the truth.

Pepper. Well, I was only about sixteen, and at Christmas I was just hired on as extra help in the record department of a large music store, which was called Grinnell’s. It had branches throughout the state of Michigan. But their main shop was in Detroit, right downtown. And I was a Christmas extra. Right next door was their repair department, and a baritone saxophone that they had taken in trade passed through their repair department. I had become friendly with the repair man by this point, so he suggested that I try it out. I did, and I enjoyed playing it. So, using my employee's discount, and I think my friend Mark Degreder made me a loan to begin with, I purchased that instrument, and played it about six weeks. By then, I decided that I enjoyed the baritone so much I really wanted a good one, and was able to get a brand new Selmer on hire-purchase. That's not an American phrase, is it?

Ben: Right, it's British, and it refers to the act of lease-renting, right? . .

Pepper. Yeah, something like that ...

Ben: The importance of your choice of instrument is made more significant, I think, by the fact that there are so few baritone players. There are tenor players who play baritone, and there are other people who play the instrument casually, but you're a baritone saxophone player.

Pepper. Yeah, it's becoming rather more common now than it was in earlier times. But it is still a relative rarity.

Ben: One thinks of Gerry Mulligan, of course, in the '50s, as having a real influence on the instrument, and your emergence on the jazz scene, as a counter-theme to the way he approached the instrument, was noteworthy. You put the muscle back in the instrument through more aggressive playing. If his approach was typically "West Coast," you were clearly from the East.

Pepper. Yeah, I've always felt there was no real competition between Gerry and myself, since we approach the instrument so differently. I really enjoy listening to him play. It's just a different approach than I would feel comfortable with for myself.
Ben: I'm also reminded of something John Coltrane said about why he took up the soprano saxophone after playing tenor for so long. He said he'd been hearing a higher sound in his head for years and years, and it wasn't until he got the soprano in his hands that he realized, "This is what I've been hearing." Did you have a similar feeling? Had you heard a lower voice in your head as you were playing other horns, and when you got the baritone, you said, "Yeah, this is what I hear inside"?

Pepper: There probably is something to that, yes, since I played soprano when I was young, and I played some alto. And I don't think I could anymore. I don't think I can hear intonation up that high anymore.

Ben: So you were hearing it lower.

Pepper: And a number of people have pointed out that, in terms of natural form of expression, the baritone seems to fit with my speaking voice.

Ben: True enough. Traditionally, people, because it's played in the lower register, would think of it as being a slower instrument to get around on. You've disproved that. Did you have to go to great lengths to disprove that?

Pepper: Actually, baritone tends to sound logy a lot, and a lot of baritone players always seem to be behind the beat, just struggling to catch up. Which, I think, can come from two basic reasons. One being just a sheer lack of technical expertise. And the other is that, if you play everything legato and don't use the tongue, and don't outline where the note is gonna hit, everything tends to run together. Because it is lower-pitched. And this has no rhythmic impact, or impulse behind it. So I've tried to use a legato tongue so that there is differentiation between the notes. And I try to do a lot with articulation, because that has a lot to do with what the time feeling is going to be. And if you fail to articulate on a baritone, or any lower pitched instrument, it is gonna be just one constant ramble after a while.

Ben: Is it a technique you specifically had to find for yourself, or did you apply a broader tenor technique to it?
Pepper. You know, I really don't know. I think I kinda stumbled into it. As a way of trying to make the instrument seem like it was actually playing in time with the rest of the band. When I was first playing the baritone, well, Harry Carney was of course my favorite player, and still is, as far as his ability with the instrument overall, and everything he could do with the instrument. I guess you'd have to say that the popular baritone player among the young musicians of that time, or the only one that they really heard very much, would have been Serge Chaloff. And I didn't care for his playing at all, for one thing. He always sounded like he was behind and struggling to catch up. And so I guess it was the fact that people were listening to him, gave me the idea of listening to him, and finding out what I didn't like, and then working from there.

Ben: Could be a good technical guidepost for young players: as well as finding people you do like, find out people you don't like.

But early on, you also found some aggressive players to hang out with in Detroit, world class players, that kept you playing strong to keep up with them. I'm thinking specifically of Tommy Flanagan and Barry Harris and the Jones brothers, Elvin, Hank and Thad.

Pepper. Well, I think that Detroit, historically, has always had a great jazz scene. I remember people like Rex Stewart and Quentin Jackson talking about having been there with McKinney's Cotton Pickers in 1930. And, I think that throughout the '30s and '40s and '50s, there was a high level of musical consciousness in the city, so that there were indeed a lot of fine local musicians. And one factor I've mentioned before is that there was such a high overall level of musicianship in Detroit that if you were a young musician and really aspired to work and make money playing your instrument, you had to get awful doggone good to be on a level to compete at all. And I didn't realize how true this was until I left Detroit and went to the Army. Get out in the rest of the world and found out the standards elsewhere were not nearly as high.

Ben: Barry Harris has mentioned the same thing. The level of achievement in Detroit was very high. Were you aware of a Detroit sound? or were you aware of doing it a particular way in Detroit?

Pepper. I think as time went on, indeed I was, yeah. I think basically it was the time feeling. More than anything else, the kind of loose swing with no doubt of where the time lay. I found it difficult to listen to people with floundering time feels. And I like to play with the time. I like to play tricks with it, of course, but always knowing where I am and being able to come back to where the time is in such a secure manner as to make the listener wonder if I had really left.

Ben: Kind of The Pepper Adams Theory of Relativity there. You and many of the Detroit players, of course, wound up in New York City eventually. Was it difficult initially to get work as a baritone saxophone player in New York City? Was the instrument any problem, in terms of getting employment?

Pepper: I suppose, to some extent, it would be with a club owner who'd never had a baritone player in the front line before, just wondering, "What is that thing?" And thinking that maybe this isn't the way he should go. So perhaps to some extent, but I think, in a sense, it helped me in that I came to New York pretty well-equipped already as a musician. I was no kid. I was 25 or 26 when I came here, I think. And in Detroit, I worked practically all the time, from the time I returned from the Army, for the next three years. When I stayed in Detroit, I was working six nights a week, pretty much steadily, and I had never had any trouble reading anything, so I was equipped for a variety of work.

Ben: What's the first job you got when you got to the city?
Pepper: Wow, I'm not really positive. I had a number of friends here, when I moved here. One of them being Oscar Pettiford. I think Oscar got me the first gig, and that was out at a place, long gone now, that was called the Cork and Bib, in Westbury, Long Island. I remember being new to New York, and not knowing very much about the city. I knew Manhattan a little bit, but the environs, I knew nothing. But when I went to the Cork and Bib, in Westbury, and discovered an outfitters shop for polo ponies next door, I figured, "I think I must be in a fairly affluent part of Long Island."

Ben: Circle the wagons boys, we're here. Well, it's a far cry from what the rest of the employment must have been like, 'cause I know that the club scene in the city was of a different order.

Pepper: Yeah. Let's see, I worked out my union card transfer. And again, Oscar Pettiford kind of forced me onto Stan Kenton's band. Forced both of us. Forced me to do it, because I was never very much of a fan of that band. And talked Kenton into hiring me, sight unseen. And, there's a very long story that we could insert here, but that can go elsewhere. So actually, I worked out part of my transfer time while on the road with Kenton's band.

Ben: Well, we've kind of arrived full circle to the recording I mentioned at the beginning, the one that you made in February of 1959, at Town Hall in New York City. It was released originally on Riverside Records. It’s the album Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall, featuring Monk, of course, on piano, Charlie Rouse on tenor, Sam Jones on bass, Art Taylor on drums, and yourself on baritone saxophone.

Pepper: Don't forget Jay McAllister on tuba. I got Jay McAllister on the gig. He'd been in Kenton's band with me.

Ben: A very high point in the history of jazz, from the fans' point of view. It's a record that's traded and highly praised all over. One wonders why this particular format of Monk's music, the big little band, didn't go on beyond this one concert. Was this like a one-shot thing?

Pepper: That wasn't the intention. When we were rehearsing for the concert there was talk, in fact, it was supposed to be definite, that a concert tour of about three weeks had been set up for the group, that was to begin something like four weeks after the concert. So we had that, were to do the Town Hall concert, have three or four weeks, add some more pieces to the repertoire, have further rehearsals, paid for, and then go on this tour of concerts, primarily in colleges, I believe. And that was the whole theory. And that in fact was part of the package that I was approached with initially, when I was asked to play in this band for Town Hall.
Ben: In other words, to take out a month and devote yourself to this project.

Pepper. Yeah. Which sounded fine. It was certainly enjoyable, the rehearsals were just great. We had a lot of fun. But we went on, played the concert and the immediate reviews that we received were so bad that all of the rest of the concerts were cancelled.

Ben: I can't believe it. How bad could they have been, and what in fact did they say?

Pepper: Actually, my basic memory of the situation was, that it was a case of the immediate reaction being bad. That is, in New York daily press or weekly press, such as the Village Voice, which I believe would have been Nat Hentoff in those days. And, recently somebody gave me , review of the concert from the New York Times, for Monday, March 2nd, '59 ...

I've mentioned a number of times before about how this was suppose( to have been a continuing working band, and how the reviewers just put it away so badly that we never got another gig. Actually, we had one about a year later. One festival. And there's been a lot of disbelief around since this record is held in such high esteem these days. But the fact that the daily and weekly press put us away so bad, and I can quote now from the review in the New York Times. There is mention of some of the titles that the ten piece band played, one of them incorrectly. We did not play "Crepuscule with Nellie.” And then it says that “… Mr. Monk’s determination to impose his musical personality on his musicians and the surging, sweaty efforts of the musicians to wrestle with Mr. Monk’s music, give the disks a raw excitement.” He’s speaking of previous Monk recordings with a smaller group. “But none of this could be found in the bland, workaday performances of the large group, with which Mr. Monk played Saturday evening. The arrangements smoothed out the characteristically Monkian lumps and bumps, diluted his tartness and robbed the works of their zest. It was a pipe-and-slippers version of music that is naturally querulous."

Ben: And, why don't we, since we've listed the soloist of the day, why don't we also list the writer of this review as well.

Pepper. Well, the reviewer? John S. Wilson.

Ben: John S. Wilson, the New York Times. So his opinions, which have clearly been proven wrong in the light of history, were a big part of the reason why promoters cancelled the tour of the Monk big band. The fact of the matter, then, is the press has a lot to do with our jobs out here. Wilson's review stopped that tour, right?

Pepper: Yeah, certainly. Put an end to that band.
Ben: A moment of silence here for what might have been. And for all critics and would-be critics to examine their consciences.

You mentioned that the rehearsals with Monk were fun. Hall Overton, of course, came in with charts, and he had orchestrated some Monk piano solos.

Pepper: Oh, yeah, and they were terrific. He had done a beautiful job. And the rehearsals were held in Hall Overton's loft, which was in the flower district here, like the 20s and Sixth Avenue. And we had great fun. As you know, there's some pretty tough music in there, so there were some things to wrestle with, and it was a lot of fun. Demanding and enjoyable.

Ben: You talk about the tonguing being important, to get the rhythmic feel. Well, Monk’s lines are just skipping all over the place rhythmically. And the ensemble work is tight without being rigid. I mean, you seem to be skipping, but together. When you get through playing those lines behind the rhythm section, is your solo at all influenced then by the ensemble work, or do you just step out front and play what you will?

Pepper: That's interesting. Sometimes a solo can grow out of what has preceded it. Or act as a commentary on the surroundings in some way. Other times, it just doesn't seem to work out. But it's nice when it does, when you're in a big band setting. So many of the solos in Ellington's band were like that. Where they were almost an indispensable part of the arrangements after a while.

Ben: Ellington was reputed to have written the arrangement sometimes to make the other side of it happen.

Pepper: I wouldn’t be at all surprised.

Ben: I’m struck Pepper, by the amount of live recording you've done. This Monk at Town Hall is an exception only in the sense that it's not a Pepper Adams date. But there are some serious Pepper Adams live dates out I think the first record you made as a leader was the album Ten to Four at the Five Spot, with Donald Byrd on trumpet, Doug Watkins, Elvin Jones on drums and Bobby Timmons on piano. Do you remember how out of tune that piano was on that date? It was outrageous, You know, it speaks about the conditions under which this particular an form is practiced daily. How do you put a piano like that out of your mind and execute a lovely ballad like you did on that record?
Pepper: Ho, ho, ho. I tell you, it's excruciating, really. Because I completely lose track of where the core of the intonation is, if indeed there is, if there is one. And so, very quickly, instead of just competing with an out-of-tune piano, I have lost all track of intonation within myself. So I'm not even sure to what extent my intonation on my own instrument is. To use the Irish expression, "Something like that'd make your face hurt." It's tough and was probably made even worse by the fact that everything on that album was taken from the very last set of the night.

Ben: Really? How did that happen?

Pepper: I think we did three or four sets in there, this was when stereo was first coming in, if you noticed by the date there. And it was Riverside' first attempt at recording stereo on a live date. So we completed the earlier part of the evening and I think Ray Fowler was the engineer, if I'm remembering correctly, and Orrin Keepnews was there, of course, overseeing seeing things. And he says, "Well, I think we've got a lot of great music in there. I think we can even start packing up now." And, Orrin had Elvin and myself go to the bar for a drink, and Ray Fowler comes running and says, "One of our microphone leads has been out all night. Nothing is in stereo." And that was part of the whole point, this is their first live stereo recording. So we quickly had to do one more set, and that's entire album.

Ben: April 15, 1958, at the Five Spot Cafe in New York. You are there

Pepper: And Elvin Jones had a black eye. Not from any disagreement. had had a wisdom tooth removed a couple of days earlier, and the roots had gone back so far that its removal caused the blood vessels to burst inside, giving him a rather spectacular black eye. If you've never Elvin with a black eye, you're really missing something there.

Ben: When you hear the small handful of people clapping at the end that record, the four or five people left in the club, again you're reminded of the number of brilliant recordings that have been made in front of few dedicated, or oblivious, people who just happened to be in the joint, and who probably don't even realize what's just happened in front them. And it's only because there's a document that anybody says years later, "Wow, that music was great! Were you really there that night?” Important history often feels pretty ordinary when you're right in the middle of it. But I bring up the subject of live recordings with you, because captured music, versus manufactured music, seems to be important to what you're all about, Pepper. Do you have any feelings about live recordings versus studio recordings? Pepper: No, not really. I think that the feeling within the group is the primary thing. And there's been a lot of things written about the inspiration that an audience can give. Well, the sort of audience you mentioned, you know, it sounds like the end of Laugh-In...

Ben: Yeah, the sound of one hand clapping ...

Pepper: Now that's a dubious inspiration right there.

Ben: But you know, sometimes I think that when you hear somebody playing great, in the face of adversity, maybe with instruments that are out of tune, an audience that's somehow indifferent, it brings even more greatness to the music. I know it's perverse to say that.

Pepper: Well, I can see the poignancy of it. I've made some live recordings of which I'm quite fond. But also some studio recordings. I can't say that I played better in one context then the other, necessarily.

Ben: Well, perhaps ironically then, after many years of recordings, live and in-studio, you finally got some critical recognition recently when you were nominated for a Grammy, and it was for a live album. The album was called Pepper Adams Live at Fat Tuesdays and, again, featured some of your old Detroit pals, like Hank Jones and Louis Hayes. So you're still hangin' out with some of those same Detroit guys, I see.

Pepper: Oh yeah. Certainly. Actually, there's a large number of musicians and people who are our friends from Detroit, and we have continued to be good friends for thirty years or so. And that's nice, that's really nice to have. Like I could sit and name forty or fifty people that I've maintained friendships with consistently for over at least a thirty-year span. And I doubt if there are many people in other walks of life could do that.

Ben: Why do you think that is? Because parts of the jazz world do seem like a big family at times.

Pepper: I think it's a basic closeness and mutual respect that we share. And just a strong liking. There are a lot of the musicians, some that you started naming before, that came from Detroit and became internationally known. There are an awful lot of really nice fellows among 'em too. Wouldn't want to meet anybody nicer than Tommy Flanagan. Or Barry Harris, or Kenny Burrell. Any number of others. Roland Hanna, Louis Hayes, and it just goes on and on. And there a number of musicians that never left Detroit, that we all know, us Detroit musicians. They're just not known to the general public, because they never received the exposure. For one reason or another.

Ben: It's like the famous Steinberg map of the United States as seen from the New York City perspective. There's New York City and then there's Japan, and everything in between is just a wasteland. That's the way the New York press often perceives it, anyway.

You know, Phil Woods refers to you as one of the warriors of this music. You bring that up with Phil, if you like. But I think the image apt. There's a clear dedication in your playing to some of the pure values of the music that first drew you to it.
Pepper: You know, I don't wanna take much credit for that, because I try to play as well as I can, as an improvising jazz artist, as much of time as I can. I'm capable of sitting in a section and playing perfectly well, because that's part of the craft. But I try as much as I can to work as a soloist, and try to play, just try to swing for one thing, and the various other ways that I try to approach playing. But I'm doing that not so much because of any kind of altruistic thing; it's because that's what I feel I do best. So if I have any shot at survival at all out here, I better stick to what I do best, even though it sometimes seems to be overlooked or downgraded in the press. Musicians seem to like it. And the public seems to like it. The class that I don't seem to satisfy are the critics. The Live at Fat Tuesday's album, which as you mentioned was nominated for Grammy, only received two and a half stars in Down Beat. I mean, you got to make a pretty bad album to get two and a half stars.

Ben: Yeah. Especially when times are such that they give four and five to some rock and roll records.

Pepper. Yeah. That was one of the problems with Live at Fat Tuesday's, course; no synthesizers on it.
Ben: Well, the concept of a warrior, then, I think is apt.

Pepper. Yeah, but I don't wanna take credit for it, because if I wanted make a crossover record, or something like that, I wouldn't know the first thing about it. Freddie Hubbard said he sold out and it wasn't worth it, because he didn't make enough money. Well, I would feel, you know. I don't know anything about the criteria for judging any of that other stuff. All I know about is jazz. And so I figure I better stick to that, because I just don't know the esthetics of the jazz-rock or pop-rock.

Ben: Years ago, when we first talked about your solo on Monk's "Little Rootie-Tootie," and I said to you, "It sounds so verbal, so literate, do you think there's any connection between the bebop style of playing and the highly literate times, the bohemian era of the forties and fifties?" And I remember you said to me, "Oh, absolutely. You know, Charlie Parker was a great reader." But nobody knows that about Charlie Parker. Nobody thinks of that. What you hear about Charlie Parker is his life of excess, things that the press can play up and sell issues, you know And they dispense with the man, almost, by trivializing the depth of the work ...

Pepper. Um, hm, very true ...

Ben: So back to the point: I hear in your playing a very literate sensibility. Are you a great reader? Are you a somebody who spends time with books?

Pepper: Oh yes. Very definitely. Always have been, yeah.

Ben: Who are some of your favorite writers?

Pepper: Currently? William Trevor. Josef Skvorecky. Right now I'm reading Ludwig Bemelmans, which is going back to the '30s and '40s. It is very funny. Let's see. Among people writing right now, Keith Waterhouse is a terrific writer, who is hardly known in the United States. He wrote the novel Billy Liar, from which came the film. But he's written eight, ten other novels in a variety of styles, and several of them with considerable humor. And he's an awful lot of fun.

Ben: The element of humor being a big part of jazz too.

Pepper: I think so. I love it and I think sometimes mine might go almost a little overboard, into the slapstick thing. But so does Thad's. I love Playing with Thad [Jones], because sometimes the slapstick kind of humor starts flowing ...

Ben: Physical or musical humor?

Pepper: Musical. But so broad as to approach farce.

Ben: Referring perhaps to quotes, musical quotes, the way you approach that.

Pepper: Yeah. Or making fun of a style that we don't care for by exaggerated vibrato. Taking a well-known phrase from something and distorting it. Or particularly playing it in another key. And creating the tensions that occur when you play something that is totally recognizable as a melody, except that the whole rest of the band is in an entirely different key. I like that. One of my favorite classical composers is Arthur Honegger. And I love, particularly, the way he mixes keys. He'll have a beautiful melody going, and with a very strong accompaniment, but they could be, not the easy intervals, not necessarily the tri-tone interval or something like that, but be a minor third apart, or a second apart. It really gets fascinating.
Ben: Do you use any of that sort of abstraction when you play? Are you thinking consciously of that? Or are you talking as you talk to me now?

Pepper: Well, I'm not sure how conscious it is. I do often try to play in another key, sometimes. For various effects. It can be for a drama, it can be for humor, poignancy. All these effects can occur with a bi-tonal approach. And a lot of that has to do with how you resolve it at the end, too. You can either leave it hanging, or you can bring it back in.

But, to me, just improvising more or less straight-ahead jazz on a rhythmic basis, and over a regulated set of chord changes, is endlessly fascinating. Where did I see that quote? Oh, Stanley Dance, who is a very nice man, and a very good friend, But he doesn't care much for music since '45 or so, refers to the harmonic cul-de-sac of bebop. I would have to argue with Stanley about that one, because there is much, much more that can be done with the harmonies. And melodies.

I don't really necessarily think of myself as a bebop player. I don't know about that. I'm suspicious of all labels. And particularly that one, because when I was young and in Detroit, the bebop players really denigrated my playing, because they told me I wasn't doing it right. And I wasn't trying to do it right. I was not imitating Charlie Parker in the sense of playing his phrases, as most of the youngsters, younger players at that time would try to do. To be hip, you played a phrase of his. I never tried that. I never memorized solos or studied solos in particular at all. What I would do, certainly, was pay attention to his harmonic usages, and his melodic usages, and try to learn from them, and then do it in a way that was comfortable to me. So based on that, I really don't think of myself as particularly a bebopper at all. And the label "hard bop," I don't know where that came from. That's kind of a handy term of denigration that writers like Martin Williams or Whitney Balliett seemed to use with reckless abandon, grouping together people that don't play alike at all. But, since they disapprove of this style, they can apply it to anyone whom they don't care for.

Ben: There's an intellectual tradition, where you define a thing in order to dispense with it.

Pepper. Yeah, oh yeah, certainly. Very good. Um, hm.

Ben: Well, have we left out any critics? Is there anybody we didn't take to task here?

Pepper. "Whom have we not yet offended," in Mort Sahl's phrase.
Ben: You come here very much a man at the top of his career, somebody who's mastered his craft. Is there something that you would say to a younger player today, faced with the adversity of this business, and the randomness of critical acclaim, and the difficulty of developing a style? Any advice to a young player?

Pepper: I think I would tell just about any young player, "Enjoy what you do, but don't really count on making a living at doing this," because if it's something you approach cold-bloodedly, as if you're gonna become a star, I don't think it can be worthwhile for you. It can be worthwhile only if you love the music and derive enough enjoyment from the music and the people you're involved with in the music to compensate for what is quite likely to be a life below the poverty line.

I think those are just about the facts. I mean, there are young players coming to New York, who are making out fine. A few. But for the vast majority, it's tremendously difficult, much more so than when I came here, 25, 30 years ago, And I don't really know how they get along. And I hear fine young players all the time. Our educational system is turning out fine young players. Jerry Dodgion asks, "But what are they gonna do with all this expertise?" Only so many can work with Woody Herman at one given time, you know?”

…. To be continued in Part 2: Elements of Style & Discography

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Tom Harrell - Part 2 - A Retrospective & The Recordings

[c] - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Phil Woods has no tolerance for either shallow musicianship or hyperbole about Jazz players. So when this highly respected alto saxophonist speaks of ‘genius and innovation’ in Jazz in the same breath, we’d best listen. You know it’s no jive.

His words almost take on a reverential tone when he speaks of Tom Harrell." ….
– Ken Franckling


“His style mixes together the power of Clifford Brown with the lyricism of Chet Baker.” 
– Scott Yanow

If nothing more was ever said about the quality of Tom Harrell’s playing, this one sentence might stand as the definitive description of it. I can think of no other trumpet player in Jazz today who melds Brownie’s fire with Chet’s songfulness.

Before delving into Tom’s recordings, let’s begin with Constance Casey’s well-written retrospective of Tom’s career as a context in which to place them. Her essay is entitled Making Music That Catches The Wind: Premier Jazz Trumpeter Tom Harrell Outplays His Schizophrenia and it appeared in the May/June 2008 issue of Stanford Magazine, the same year that Tom took up an artist-in-residency at the university.
Constance Casey, a former book editor of the San Jose Mercury News, is a New York City writer who regularly contributes to Slate.com.


© Copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“At the Iridium Jazz Club’s tiny tables are several groups of young Europeans on a pilgrimage to hear trumpeter and composer Tom Harrell. Some of his fellow jazz professionals, many graying, came early to get front-row seats. Toward the back are some lucky tourists who’ve walked the few blocks up from Times Square.

Burly sax player Joe Lovano takes the quartet’s first solo, then comes Harrell. With his horn up, he is a compelling figure: a gray-haired, ghost-pale man in black leather jacket and black jeans. From his trumpet comes a cascade of notes, impossibly high and impossibly fast, yet with each note articulated. He’s inventive, completely concentrated, playing with the audience’s expectations about where the tune will go next. Then, on a standard—“Body and Soul”—his playing turns slow and sweet, twining with Lovano’s sax.

Harrell usually plays and tours the United States and Europe with the intensively rehearsed quintet he leads. Tonight’s quartet plays together expertly even without rehearsal; they trust each other. Harrell and Lovano have played together for at least 25 years. Cindy Blackman, intense and glamorous, is on drums; Cameron Brown, with 40 years of recording behind him, plays double bass. For this week each will lay improvisations over Harrell’s compositions, and every performance will be distinctive.

Newsweek has called Harrell a genius, and Entertainment Weekly named his recording The Art of Rhythm its best jazz album of 1998, celebrating “Harrell’s arrival as a composer and as the premier trumpeter of his generation. (Sorry, Wynton).” Phil Schaap, curator of Jazz at Lincoln Center, says of Harrell, “He has it all—technique, lyricism, beauty and energy.”

But the sight of Harrell when he lowers his horn is also compelling. His head is bowed, his chest caves in, the hand holding the trumpet hangs limp. His face is without affect or reaction. Not everyone in the audience knows that he has schizophrenia; the disease was diagnosed when Harrell, ’67, was a Stanford freshman. For more than four decades he has struggled with the illness and with the debilitating side effects of the imperfect medications used to control it.


His appearance unnerves people, even as their hearts go out to him. He’s aware of the discomfort that disperses only when he is playing his shimmering music. He once apologized to an audience, “I’m sorry I’m not a more charismatic figure.”

It is, of course, a clichĂ© to cite music’s power. We have all, as listeners, experienced its charms—been soothed by lullabies, excited by fast tempos, consoled by stately rhythms. We’ve read about countless performers who proclaim that music is their reason for being. It’s another thing altogether to hear this sentiment from Harrell, for whom music literally is transforming: “One of the first reasons I wanted to play the trumpet is that it healed me.”

There is no cure for schizophrenia, although generations of drugs developed during the past 20 years have made the disease more bearable for many. But it remains very hard for a schizophrenic to make a coherent life, much less construct a stellar career. In a typical year Harrell has between 80 and 120 performance dates in the United States, Europe, South America and Japan. His fellow performers report that he is remarkably dependable and considerate. His success is especially remarkable because he still experiences delusional thinking, hears voices and shies at noises, such as a camera’s click.

“His condition?” says Joe Lovano. “He knows how to deal with it. He’s a mature individual.”

When told about Harrell, neurologist Oliver Sacks, the author most recently of Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, was reminded of one of the most studied cases of schizophrenia in history, that of Daniel Paul Schreber, a German who died in 1911. Though institutionalized, Schreber was able to write a memoir in which he observed, “During piano playing the nonsensical twaddle of the voices which talk to me is drowned. . . . Every attempt at ‘representing’ me by the ‘creation of a false feeling’ and suchlike is doomed to end in failure because of the real feeling one can put into piano-playing.”

Harrell’s fellow musicians often mention the honesty of his playing, his authentic feeling. The intensity of his playing, along with the structure of music itself and the supportive cohort of musicians who work with him, seems to mitigate the disease’s hallmarks of disordered thinking and withdrawal from other people. Harrell also benefits from his marriage to Angela Harrell, a Japanese-born science and medicine writer whom he met 16 years ago when she interviewed him for a joint Japanese TV and Discovery Channel documentary on creativity and the brain. (“She called me,” he says, with a faint smile, to joke about her being forward.) She acts as his manager, booking performances and looking after his music publishing. Hundreds of his songs, orchestrations and arrangements are used by other musicians. His compositions have been played by Carlos Santana and Vince Guaraldi; young trumpet players up for a challenge buy the sheet music, Tom Harrell—Jazz Trumpet Solos Collection.“He could not do it himself,” Harrell’s agent Joel Chriss says. But well before having Angela’s logistical and business support—in the late 1970s—Harrell was established as one of the foremost musicians of his generation. As a teenager, he sat in on Bay Area jam sessions that sometimes included famed saxophonist Dewey Redman. After graduating from Stanford (where he played with the Band and the Stanford Symphony), Harrell toured with Stan Kenton’s band and Woody Herman’s Thundering Herd. In the 1970s he moved from big, brassy bands to more experimental music, playing with jazz pianist and composer Horace Silver. Silver was a pioneer in hard bop style, an extension of bebop that pulled in gospel, and rhythm and blues.

By age 30 Harrell was leading groups of his own. His 21 albums consist mainly of original works, with a few standards tucked in. Some of his most impressive pieces are experiments in the interplay of trumpet and voice. Early this year the French Orchestre National de Lorraine recorded a premiere of Harrell’s symphonic suite for singer Elisabeth Kontomanou. Another reason he gives for loving the trumpet is that he believes it’s the closest instrument to the human voice.

On the day we met, Harrell’s speaking voice, whether as a result of his illness or affect-dulling medication, was unmusical, a slow monotone. Our interview took place in a Lower Manhattan hotel room, with Angela sitting quietly nearby. Harrell spoke with eyes downcast, sometimes closed.

“Music always has a fantastic ability for healing. The sound is magic. Don Cherry once said, and Freud, too, by the way, that words themselves are magic sounds.” Harrell gives an almost imperceptible smile at mentioning Sigmund Freud second to Cherry, the late trumpeter.

He describes listening as a child to his grandparents’ 78-rpm recordings of Enrico Caruso arias and Aida by Giuseppe Verdi (certainly a composer who knew how to employ trumpets). He loved his parents’ Jazztone Records compilation of 1950s stars—Charlie Parker, bassist Slam Stewart and “the first time I heard Dizzy Gillespie.”

His father, Thomas W. Harrell, was a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business known for his research on the personality traits of successful business people. (His son and daughter heard him whistle Big Band tunes around the house.) His mother, Margaret, was a statistician who co-authored many of her husband’s studies. Music historian Ted Gioia, ’79, MBA ’83, remembers getting a call “out of the blue” from Professor Harrell. “I’m not even sure he knew I had been a student at the Business School. He just wanted to talk about his son. . . . He was a proud father and relished the chance to hear how much jazz musicians admired his son’s talent.”

Harrell began to play the trumpet when he was 8 and was studying Russ Garcia texts on arranging a few years later. A friend’s father who played bass and drums sometimes invited the young trumpeter to play along. “It was a revelation to me,” Harrell remembers. “I started hearing the color of the walking bass line.”

Listening to the radio one day at age 13, Harrell heard a recording of Clifford Brown, the legendary trumpeter of the 1950s who died in a car crash at age 25. “I heard a celestial sound. It was, essentially, Gabriel.” Critics credit Harrell with some of the best of the Clifford Brown qualities—incredible speed, but with clarity and precision.

In his Stanford studies, he says, “I was interested in European classical music and its parallels to American jazz. Billy Strayhorn was classically trained. Dizzy Gillespie combined the rhythm of jazz with European harmony.” He minimizes the onset of his illness in those college years as, “I dropped out for a minute,” and, later in the conversation, “I had a sort of breakdown.” Calmly, he explains, “I was able to go back after I started taking medication for my illness.”

Harrell firmly rejects any romantic notion that mental illness is in any way of benefit to an artist, something that provides unusual insight. “It’s biochemical,” he says brusquely. “First of all, take the medicine.”

Despite recent advances, medication for schizophrenia remains far from perfect. When a drug damps down the demons, in most cases it also smothers spontaneity and creativity, and in many cases antipsychotics have weakening side effects. For decades Harrell took Stelazine, an early antipsychotic that partially controlled delusions and hallucinations but gave him unpredictable muscle contractions, obviously a terrible problem for a performer. Seven years ago he switched to Seroquel, which has common side effects of dizziness and sluggishness, but causes fewer tremors.

Some paranoid sensitivity remains. Harrell took offense at my question about whether he tended to be more solidly on the beat than many jazz musicians. He angrily left the room after remembering a long ago punning criticism by the late New Yorker jazz critic Whitney Balliett, who called him, “flat-footed, like a cop on the beat.” Balliett also called Harrell “brilliant,” but that’s not what he remembers. When I had introduced the question by saying I was not a trained musician, he thought I had called him untrained.

Angela said simply, “Tom, you’re being paranoid,” and Harrell returned, suddenly calm, to continue our conversation. “Rhythm is my weak point. I sound stiff to myself sometimes.” As if to stabilize himself, he added very firmly, “Dizzy Gillespie, the greatest trumpet player, admired my playing. That’s all I’ll ever need.”

The musicians who play with Harrell view his occasionally offbeat behavior sympathetically, almost fondly. They remember a time when they were alarmed that he seemed to have gone missing in an airport. He had retreated to a spot in the parking garage to play his trumpet. Some thought the playing was to settle himself; others that he was working on a composition inspired by jet noise.
Jazz is hard work: four hours a day of practice alone, or rehearsal. Harrell manages to surmount his difficulty in communicating verbally with his musical partners: If something is different from what he intends, he’ll play a voicing on the piano rather than explain in words. Harrell also is known for the meticulous preparation of his hand-written scores. Too often, sax player Lovano says, composers turn up with something messy. “When Tom brings in a piece of music, it’s completely written and he’s confident. He counts it off and we play it the first time all the way through.”

The untutored in the Iridium’s audience enjoyed the songs, including Harrell’s best-known “Sail Away.” The educated jazz audience responded to his improvisation; fans say he never plays something you’ve heard before. Someone once said the difference between composing and improvising is that a composer has as long as necessary to create 30 seconds of music, whereas an improviser has 30 seconds. Harrell does both. “I have more ideas now than I ever had,” he says.

He’s modest about his place in the pantheon of American jazz artists, demurs that he is “not a very analytical thinker. I’m playing my feelings.” As our conversation wound down he looked up at me and said, “I can catch the wind, something that is free, something that we all share.”

The next generation of trumpet players is grateful. Ambrose Akinmusire, winner of the 2007 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, has seen Harrell in performance. “As soon as he picks the trumpet up, it’s almost like he was meditating. You see pure concentration. I imagine people would walk away with hope, knowing all he’s been through."

For a variety of reasons both personal and professional, for the better part of the 1970s, I essentially gave Jazz a miss.

As a result, I didn’t develop an awareness of Tom on record until I heard him as a member of the Phil Woods Quintet on two 1984 albums: [1] Integrity issued on the Italian Red Records label [CD 123177] in April of that year and [2] later in December, Heaven [Evidence ECD 22148-2].


Unbeknownst to me at that time was the fact that Tom had really started his career much earlier in big bands: first with Stan Kenton in 1969 and shortly thereafter with Woody Herman.

As Stuart Nicholson comments in his book about the resurgence of Jazz in the 1980s
:


“Tom was featured on an arrangement of ‘A Time For Love’ and it was clear the 24-year old had in place tone, technique and flair for lucid melodic construction. Since then he worked with Horace Silver, appearing on five albums with him, and a remarkable roster of musicians including pianist Bill Evans, George Russell, Mel Lewis, Bob Brookmeyer, Lee Konitz and in 1980, he contributed some flugelhorn solos on Gerry Mulligan’s Grammy winning ‘Walk on Water.’” [p. 90]

From 1983 to 1989, Harrell’s “… gift for lyrical invention, economy of line, wholesome tone and the high regard of his peers” [Loc. cit] was such that Phil Woods decided to expand his standard quartet with Hal Galper [p], Steve Gilmore [b] and Bill Goodwin [d] into a quintet in order or to be able to work with Tom on a regular basis.

In The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD: 6th Edition, Richard Cook and Brian Morton had this to say about Phil, Tom and the new quintet in Integrity:

“… any who have heard the group in concert will surely want this live record. Harrell had worked for some years as a freelance in search of a context, and with Woods he secured a precise focus: the material here is a connoisseur’s choice of jazz themes – including Neal Hefti’s ‘Repetition,” Ellington’s ‘Azure,’ Wayne Shorter’s ‘Infant Eyes,” and Sam Rivers’ ‘222’ – mediated through a clear-headed approach to modern bop playing. Harrell’s lucid tone and nimble, carefully sifter lines are as piquant a contrast with Woods as one could wish, without creating any clashes of temperament.” [p. 1579].

Fortunately and with great appreciation to Carl Jefferson its owner, Concord Records had the good sense to further document this superb band with three additional recordings: [1] Bop Stew [CCD-4345], Bouquet [CCD-4377], and Flash [CCD-4408 on which trombonist Hal Crook joins to make the group into a sextet].

Turning once again to Cook and Morton’s comments about these recordings they noted that:

“This was one of the great touring and recording bands of the 1980s. Harrell and Woods inspiring each other and the rhythm section inquiring and swinging. Woods didn’t need to change anything about his style, but it blossoms anew in counterpoint with Harrell’s lyrical fire, and each album is handsomely programmed and delivered.” [Ibid., p. 1580].

In 1994/1995, good fortune came into play again when Phil Woods in conjunction with Michael Cuscuna and Charlie Lourie at Mosaic Records formed an exclusive arrangement to issue a limited edition of 5,000 copies of The Phil Woods Quartet/Quintet 20th Anniversary Set [MD5-159] which contains four never-before-heard tracks with Tom Harrell from Phil’s private collection.
According to Neil Tesser who wrote the insert note booklet for this compliation:

“Bill Goodwin [who by this time had become Phil’s brother-in-law] said that one night ‘Phil called and started raving about how we had to get Tom into the band. He was going on about trumpet and alto, how he’d really been hearing trumpet and alto. The next day we offered tom the job.’ Since the band already had a slate of scheduled gigs at previously contracted fees, this meant a pay cut for all of them, in order to carve-out a fifth salary for Harrell. (‘We all love Tommy’s playing so much, ‘ Goodwin told me at the time, ‘ we’d do almost anything to get him in the band.’)
The band gave Harrell – who had freelanced in new York after stints with Woody Herman, Horace Silver and the Lee Konitz Nonet – a new and respected stage for his subtle musical brilliance. Harrell gave the band another source of superb original compositions; a translucent voice to complement Woods’ own; and a wholly different style of improvisation, based less on the spectacular peaks and grand gestures and more on solos of sustained construction. The force of his musicianship began to push the band into new and exciting areas, building on the structural integrity that had resulted from the addition of Hal Galper a few years earlier.

… Harrell opened up the band, and he retains unique significance in that regard, as the first of the ‘other horn players’ to join Woods on the front line.”


The ensemble work by Woods and Harrell is striking flawless and the unison-lines between the horns on Oliver Nelson’s 111-44 for example will leave you shaking your head at how magnificently well they are executed.

As these recordings also demonstrate, the Phil Woods Quintet with Tom Harrell was a Jazz Band for the Ages and it is a marked shame that it had to create its music in the Jazz obscurity of the 1980s.

I caught up with Tom’s recorded music once again at the end of the 1980’s, this time when he was a member and then became the joint leader of a quintet led by Swiss alto saxophonist and clarinetist George Robert.

This hard-swinging group was in existence from about 1987 – 1992 principally with a rhythm section made up of Italian Jazz pianist Dado Moroni, Reggie Johnson [b] and Bill Goodwin [d], when he was not touring with Phil Woods’ quintet.

Dan Morgenstern, the esteemed writer on the subject of Jazz and the Director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, in his insert notes to the group’s first album Sun Dance [Contemporary CCD-14037-2] album wrote:

“In a varied program of uniformly excellent originals by Robert and Harrell , the band strikes a happy balance between ensemble and solo strength. Robert gets a fine, full sound from both his alto and soprano (he handles the latter with a fluency that reflects his clarinet training) and tells a story when he plays. So does Harrell, surely one of the most underrated and under publicized trumpeters of our time (and quite a flugelhornist, too).

And in his insert notes to the group’s 1989 recording entitled Lonely Eyes [ GRP 1002], Morgenstern expressed this view about the music and the musicians:

“The horns of the co-leaders are splendidly matched, both in ensemble and solo roles. Doubling and skillfully varied writing allow for a textual variety quite amazing for a small group. Harrell, who finally seems to be getting some of the credit long due him as one of the most original and consistently excellent creative improvisers of our time, plays trumpet and flugelhorn and gets his own sound, at once warm and brilliant, from both.”

Mainly thanks to the advent of the compact disc, a few years later I eventually caught up to two other albums that Tom had made in the 1985 for Gerry Teekens Criss Cross label Based in Holland.

The first of these was on pianist Hod O’Brien’s album Opalessence [1012] on which he formed a front line with baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams [their take on Clifford Brown’s The Blues Walk will immediately demonstrate why so many Jazz listeners think of Tom’s playing as part of Clifford’ legacy].


The second was a recording done under Tom’s leadership entitled Moon Alley [1018] about which Dan Cross wrote in his
www.allmusic.com review:

“A strong recording in the post-bop tradition, Moon Alley illuminates the impressive writing of leader Tom Harrell, who has penned five of the album's seven compositions. Harrell tends to write in a manner which dictates specific parts for the rhythm section, letting the soloist stretch out over the static accompaniment. The playing is strong by all musicians on the date, and the album benefits from the youthful exuberance of saxophonist Kenny Garrett, who colors the music with smatterings of bent pitches and brief dissonances. Harrell at times reveals the influence of Kenny Dorham, though his sound on the open horn is somewhat harder and brassier than Dorham's. The recording of Kenny Barron's piano, captured by Rudy Van Gelder, gives Moon Alley a sound similar to that which dominated the 1960s Blue Note recordings, and at times, as on Harrell's "Blues in Six," the illusion is convincing." – Dan Cross
www.allmusic.com

A few years later, I encountered Tom again when Gerry Teekens, the owner and producer of Criss Cross, and pianist Mike LeDonne linked up for a series of recordings under his leadership with Tom appearing on two of them.


The first of these was 'Bout Time [1033] where Tom joins Gary Smulyan’s baritone sax to form a front line that is ably supported by pianist LeDonne, and Dennis Irwin and Kenny Washington on bass and drums, respectively.

In his insert notes to the disc, Peter Straub observed:

“The baritone-trumpet front line blends in a way that often sounds like more than two horns. Tom Harrell and Gary Smulyan sometimes remind the listener of the old Pepper Adams – Donald Byrd group, with that combination of authority and wit …. During his tenure with the Phil Woods quintet, Tom Harrell became one of the most significant musicians in jazz, always playing with the daring and nobility he demonstrates virtually everywhere on this album.”


The same group turned up on The Feeling of Jazz [1041] Mike’s next album for Criss Cross about which Scott Yanow had this to say on
www.allmusic.com:

“Pianist Mike LeDonne's second recording is most notable for the outstanding and contrasting playing of trumpeter Tom Harrell and baritonist Gary Smulyan. While Harrell is lyrical and melodic, Smulyan is forceful and swings quite hard. With bassist Dennis Irwin and drummer Kenny Washington offering stimulating support, the three lead voices are in top form. LeDonne contributed three fine originals and, other than the standard "My Ideal," the other four songs (Duke Pearson's "Ready Rudy?," Duke Ellington's "The Feeling of Jazz," Buddy Montgomery's "Bock to Bock," and Wynton Kelly’s "Action") are all superior obscurities. Easily recommended to straight-ahead jazz fans.”


For the past fifteen [15] years or so, Tom’s recorded appearances have increasingly been with his own quintet, in both live and studio settings, and in a series of concept albums on which he not only performs, but for which he also wrote the music.


Issued in 1996 on RCA [09026 68512], Labyrinth drew a high rating and the following high praise from Richard Cook and Brian Morton in The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD [6th Ed., p. 667]:

“… 'Labyrinth’ was Harrell’s real coming out as a major figure. Just turning fifty, he came to it with renewed fire. In a sense, the album takes him full circle, teaming him with players who were a part of the Criss Cross operation almost a decade earlier. Don Braden [ts] and Gary Smulyan [bs] have gone on to their own projects, and Steve Turre [tb] is now an established star as has Joe Lovano [ts]. Harrell writes all the tunes with the exception of ‘Darn That Dream’ which is an overdubbed duet with himself on piano …. The larger scale arrangements with horns, like ‘Majesty,’ ‘Sun Cycle,’ and ‘Blue to One’ take him to a new phase of musical organization, a sequence of shifting themes which often defy major/minor distinction and which resolve in the most unexpected ways."In terms of concept albums, one of Tom’s best is The Art of Rhythm [RCA 09026 68924] which is accurately described in the following review again by Richard Cook and Brian Morton in their The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD [6th Ed., Loc cit.]:

“What was becoming increasingly obvious over time is how ebullient and rhythmic a player Harrell is. … having heard this pungent set, one understands that he has learnt a good deal from Dizzy’s Afro-Hispanic experiments. … [This album] isn’t a soar-a-way, south-of-the-border-set. It might equally be subtitled ‘the art of color’ or ‘the art of arrangement.’

Never before has Harrell, who is the composer of all ten tunes, experimented more freely with instrumental combinations. The string and guitar writing, for both Romeo Lubambo and Mike Stern, is exquisite. He opens in gentle mode with clarinet [Greg Tardy], acoustic guitar and string trio on ‘Petals Danse,’ build in woodwinds elsewhere, but also allows himself a hefty dose of jazz horns on ‘Oasis (sharing solo space with Dewey Redman), ‘Doo Bop’ (a feature for Tardy’s tenor) and ‘Madrid.’

He leans heavily on flugelhorn, perhaps too much so, though Harrell has always been able to give the bigger horn the bite and attack of trumpet when so required. A wonderful, accomplished record from an important player. The success of ‘Labyrinth’ has given him considerable artistic leverage; here he used it to maximum effect.”
Jazz is always better in a “live” setting and Tom has a terrific album on offer in this regard with his Live at the Village Vanguard which was recorded November 15 – 18, 2001 [RCA 09026 63910]. C. Michael Bailey, writing in
www.allaboutjazz.com, offered this review of it:

“A Jazz Prometheus, unbound...

…. On his first live recording, Harrell squirts out a treasure trove of new material supplemented with the single (and most appropriate) "Everything Happens To Me." The results are as uniformly fine as we listeners have come to expect from this master.

Here, Harrell leads a quintet in an assembly of characteristically Harrell-abstracts, mood pieces reflecting all matter of wakefulness. The nervous opener, "Asia Minor," submits an angular head that segues into a lyrically swinging flugelhorn solo by Harrell. His solo is supplemented with the tenor of Jimmy Green, who turns in a good solo of his own. The somnolent "Manhattan, 3 AM" provides a ministry for bassist Ugonna Okegwo, while Xavier Davis provides tasty comping on all cuts and exquisite solos on his duet with Harrell on the contemplative "Everything Happens to Me." "Where the Rain Begins" is a plaintive ballad composed by Harrell and his wife/manager, Angela. The piece showcases Harrell's superb grasp on the ballad playing with an open trumpet bell.

"Blues in Una Sea" is a bit of a Hard Bop throw back, sporting elements of the blues and those great Wayne Shorter melodies, circa 1962. "Design" was inspired by Ornette Coleman and results in one of the most spirited performances of the evening, complete with smart complexity and erudite observation. The closer, "Party Song" is a polished Lee Morgan Boogaloo, quietly funky, allowing all of the participants to have their say.

Live at the Village Vanguard is brimming with all of the smartness and attentive humor of the other Harrell recordings. That this Harrell recording is live simply makes it all that much better.”

Ever since their work together in the group co-led by Swiss alto saxophonist George Robert, Tom and Italian Jazz pianist Dado Moroni have remained close friends and a special fondness for appearing together on the summer European Jazz festival circuit.



More recently, this bond has also taken the form of Tom and Dado co-leading recordings for the Italian label aBeat. Of these, Humanity [#2 Signature Series AB JZ 051] is particularly noteworthy. Comprised entirely of six, exquisitely interpreted standards – The Nearness of You, Lover, I Hear a Rhapsody, Darn That Dream, Poinciana – and the title track original by Dado, Humanity is a "formidable disc which gives the listener an hour of music that is rich in intensity, lyricism and pathos.” [paraphrase of Maurizio Zerbo’s review of the disc on
http://www.italia.allaboutjazz.com/].

The pure music that Dado and Tom create on this recording is beautiful articulated in the following statement by pianist Enrico Pieranunzi who requested “the privilege” of being able to write the insert notes for this recording:

“I like the title of this CD very much.It is a declaration, a good omen, a hope.And it is wonderful that the title refers to a Jazz CD.

There is really no music that is more ‘human’ than jazz, of this expression of the body and imagination that speaks to life as it is happening by improvising with sounds.Tom Harrell and Dodo Moroni tell their stories simply, authentically.

They sing their innermost being using so-called ‘mainstream’ language … but in the end this is not important.

What counts is the profound rapport there is between the two musicians, a silent and deeply felt understanding that spans the entire CD.

What counts are the thrills provided by tunes such as ‘Humanity’ or ‘The Nearness of You,’ as well as the other tracks, revealing a touching chance of beauty.

It is in cases like this that jazz reaches the point of being the most human of all expressions of art.”

To paraphrase Howard Reich of The Chicago Tribune in his review of Tom’s 2002 appearance at the Jazz Showcase, Chicago’s perennial Jazz club:

“To Jazz musicians, one goal towers above all others: originality. The artist who has something new and personal to say wins the admiration of his peer, while the player who sounds like nearly everyone else makes nary an impression – no matter how much flair or technique he might command.

On Tuesday night, trumpeter-composer Tom Harrell not only reaffirmed his status as one of the most gifted melodists in jazz but unceremoniously pushed into bold, previously uncharted territory

Harrell articulated the difference between genuine talent and an energetic impersonation of it, between great art and mere entertainment.

Though Harrell has been a popular headliner at the Jazz Showcase for years, his performance this time around transcended his earlier work, in part because he unveiled freshly minted compositions he has yet to title or record.

In these pieces, Harrell not only capitalized on his gift for inventing sinuous, idiosyncratic melodies but presented some of the most profound ensemble writing one can hear in live jazz today.”


If you are not familiar with Tom Harrell’s music, hopefully this piece will serve as an inducement to sample it for in doing so you will be placing yourself within the ambit of that rarest of occurrences - artistic greatest.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Tom Harrell Part 1 - The Interviews

© - Steven A. Cerra, introduction copyright protected; all rights reserved.



Tom Harrell has been called the John Forbes Nash, Jr. of Jazz. Against considerable odds, Harrell has successfully struggled with schizophrenia and become one of the most respected trumpeters and composers of the past 30 years.”

“I like to think of my music as a play of colors over a rhythm” he has said: “it’s like inviting the listeners to visit an art gallery to view an exhibition of various paintings. We express our feelings through timbres and colors within our world of sense, so as to then transcend them and enter the spiritual dimension”.
-Tom Harrell in a press release interview with Francesco Martinelli for the forthcoming 2009 BargaJazz Festival, located in Italy’s Apuan Alps [Tuscany].


One of the reasons why the JazzProfiles editorial staff frequently sources Richard Cook and Brian Morton’sThe Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD is that every once in a while these guys nail it. To wit:

“Anyone who has seen Tom Harrell perform … will understand the transformative power of music. When not playing, he stands slumped and bowed, stock-still in what looks like mute agony. When it comes time to take a solo, it is as if an electric charge has passed through him. Harrell is one of the finest harmonic improvisers in Jazz today, a player with a fierce tone who is also capable of playing the most delicate ballad with almost unbearable feeling. [6th Ed.; p. 666, emphasis mine].

One night in the Spring of 2001, I experienced first-hand Tom Harrell’s powerful sensitivity when soloing on ballads. The venue was the new Yoshi’s Jazz Club in Oakland, California’s Jack London Square.

The occasion was a visit to the club to hear Hammond B-3 organist Joey De Francesco who had augmented his then, standing trio of Paul Bollenback [g] and Byron “Wookie” Landham [d] by bringing in Teddy Edwards on tenor saxophone and Tom on trumpet and flugelhorn.

The ballad in question was I Can’t Get Started and I almost winced when Joey called the tune as a feature for Tom as it had become so de rigueur as a part of every Jazz trumpeter’s repertoire that I usually passed over it in recorded version so as not to be burdened by another boring rendition of it.

Ever since trumpeter Bunny Berigan had made this tune a popular hit in the 1930’s it had become the acid test for all trumpet players in much the same way that Coleman Hawkins’ iconic interpretation of the ballad Body and Soul became the ultimate test for all Jazz tenor saxophonists.

But when Tom had finished three improvised choruses on I Can’t Get Started that beautiful spring night at Yoshi’s and wrapped his arms around his horn, and then his body before slumping into a trance at the corner of the stage, you could have heard a pin drop. When the solo finished, what everyone did hear was the collective exhale of all of us in the audience as a measure of relief from the stunned amazement of what we had just experienced.

In a “former life,” I had three years of personal experience working with adult, paranoid schizophrenic patients and their parents in what was then described as an alternative-to-hospitalization setting based around a milieu therapy treatment program.

In non-clinical terms this meant that we were treating these patients in a more open environment, with less reliance on powerful psychotropic drugs while trying to understand the benefit of social interaction in helping these seriously impaired individuals achieve some degree of stability in their condition.

In many ways, it was the most exhausting three years of my life as the work was always 24/7, the “highs” were gratifying, but they were usually offset by excruciatingly and very disappointing “lows,” and, of course, none of these patients ever got better.

With this as a personal background to measure Tom’s achievement against, what he has accomplished given the demands of performing Jazz at the highest levels is a triumph of simply staggering proportions.

Is it any wonder, then, how often fellow musicians and audiences are always deeply touched by Tom’s playing? Perhaps they both intuitively sense the struggle that Tom has had to undergo and endure to bring to them the beauty, passion and fire in his music.

In order to delve further into the phenomena that is both Tom and what makes he and his music so unique, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles has compiled the following, three interviews in an effort to explore how he creates his art in his own words.

The first of these was conducted by Charlie Rose and broadcast on August 20, 2003 during CBS television’s 60 minutes segment entitled A Beautiful Note.

We will then move forward to the editorial staff’s transcription of Josh Jackson’s WBGO Village Vanguard interview with Tom Harrell which took place on April 8, 2008, while Tom’s band was appearing at the club, and then conclude by taking a step backward with Like Night and Day, an article about Tom by Jonathan Eig that appeared in Esquire, December 1998 which is based in part on an interview that took place earlier that year.

While chronologically out of order, this sequence for the interviews and the article may provide a more coherent and comprehensive discussion of Tom’s approach to music.


Let’s begin with Charlie Rose’s 2003 interview with Tom.


© Charlie Rose/CBS copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Tom Harrell, named jazz trumpeter of the year three times by Downbeat Magazine, is known for the gorgeous, intricate melodies he composes.

Seeing Harrell play, it's impossible to believe that he suffers from paranoid schizophrenia - a mental illness so profound that it institutionalizes many of its victims.

Harrell overcomes it with music. Yet the moment he stops playing, his disorder seizes him. Voices materialize and threaten his sense of reality.

But while Harrell appears in full retreat from the world, the music prevents him from losing his place. And when horn returns to mouth, the voices vanish. It’s the only time you don’t see the signs of his illness. Correspondent Charlie Rose reports.

Take him away from the creative process and Harrell’s behavior changes radically.
In fact, the schizophrenia makes something as ordinary as having our soundman put a microphone on him an ordeal. But soon, the moment passes.

“As long as I take the medicine now, I can stay on an even keel, and then I'm able to function,” says Harrell, who communicates musically, not verbally - which is all his band members need to follow him during performances.

Still, they have all borne witness to his paranoia.

“I think we see it all the time. He doesn't announce it, say, ‘I'm sitting, I'm hearing voices,’ you know. They'll be sudden changes for no apparent reason,” says pianist Xavier Davis.

“But maybe someone mentioned someone or whispered something just out of earshot, and he heard that as something like, ‘Tom, get off the stage. You suck.’ You know, like just something that was never said. And so, maybe he’ll just take a short solo because he thinks people don’t want to hear him play.”

But Harrell wasn't always like this, says his older sister, Sue Abrahamson.


“He was good-spirited, creative,” says Abrahamson. “He had friends that he would do things with and hang out with. And seemed pretty normal.”

Normal, but with a genius IQ, Harrell starting playing the trumpet at the age of eight. When he went off to college at 18, his sister received a call that he had tried to commit suicide.

“That was the first sign that there were problems,” says Abrahamson.How could a seemingly normal little boy with a normal childhood travel from happiness to despair so suddenly?“

"We don't know what causes the illness,” says Dr. Eric Marcus, a New York psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. He’s familiar with Harrell's history and is an expert on schizophrenia.

"A paranoid schizophrenic is someone with schizophrenia whose major manifestation of illness is the hallucinated voice and/or belief that people are out to get him - that they are targeting him in some way,” says Marcus.

When Harrell was in his 20s, those voices ordered him to walk through a window after he had some orange juice.

I come in and I see blood all over the rug, and I say, ‘What happened,?’ And he said that when he drank the orange juice, the voices told him to go out the window,” recalls Abrahamson. “And so he had to break the window to get out. So that's how he got cut.”

The glass shattered, but it kept him inside.

Harrell's days are spent practicing and composing. He writes his scores by hand. The notes are neat, logical, orderly - not what you'd expect from someone locked in the vise of schizophrenia.

Because of his disorder, Harrell is tough to interview. But when the topic is music, he takes complexity in stride.

That's beautiful, how you can see the visual art. I mean it's great when the different art forms can influence each other. The visual arts and now the musical arts,” says Harrell, on the crossover between impressionist painting and jazz.

But when the talk turns to Harrell's illness, he becomes uneasy. He takes three medications that stave off depression, reduce panic attacks, and sedate him. Without them, he turns psychotic. Even with them, performing is an act of will.

“If I take the medicine, then the voices … I don't hear anything,” he says.

And if he doesn't take the medicine?

I don't know. It's just better if I do,” he says.


Marcus says it’s astounding that Harrell is able to reach the level of creativity he reaches as a musician.

Astounding, number one. Number two, heroic - in its most true form,” says Marcus. “He has to face demons that you and I can only imagine.”

But it's not only music that holds Harrell together. It's Angela Harrell, his wife of 11 years. Angela was researching a documentary for Japanese television on creativity and the brain, which led her to tape an interview with Tom.

“He started to talk. And then he said, ‘I better go back and practice,’ and ‘That tape is making me very nervous,’" recalls Angela. “He asked me to stop the tape. And then he started to get all flustered. And he said, ‘I don't belong in the music business. I better quit. I don't have the personality to be in the music business.’”


But from this unpromising beginning came marriage.


“I think I was drawn to him immediately,” says Angela. “He was intriguing. He was mysterious. And it was sort of like unfolding, you know, petal by petal. I wanted to know this person. But the more I knew about him, the more I got to like him … This purity of spirit. He's a beautiful person. There's nothing not to like about the guy.”

Although their devotion is mutual, getting pictures of them together is hit or miss. Tom wouldn't take a walk with Angela because, he said, somebody might see him.

Was there ever a moment during their courtship when Angela asked herself, “Wait a minute, what am I doing here?”

“I didn't have these thoughts until some of the problems occurred, some of the crises that we've experienced,” admits Angela.

Those crises included sudden disappearances, rapidly changing mood swings, a suicide attempt, and a toxic reaction to a medication that almost killed Harrell.

“Those are times when I've asked myself some of those questions,” says Angela. “But never, ‘What am I doing?’ But always, ‘What can we do, and is there hope?’"
She’s says that she’s always come to the conclusion that you can’t give up. "You just have to keep trying,” she says.

Trying is one thing, but succeeding is another. How to explain the mysterious explosion that blasts through Harrell's illness and transports him to the highest level of his art?

A clue may come from Harrell himself: "I don't know whether I'm playing the music or whether the music is playing me."

Harrell's latest CD will be released this September.



Josh Jackson’s WBGO Village Vanguard interview with Tom Harrell 4.8.2008


© - Steven A. Cerra, transcription is copyright protected; all rights reserved.

John Jackson [WBGO Announcer]: “Tom Harrell, thank you for being a part of our Live at the Village Vanguard Concert Series. It’s a real pleasure. I’m amazed Tom at hearing your music, you’re most recent recording has come out in January [2008], and it’s another recording that’s all Tom Harrell compositions, it’s the quintet that will feature here at the Village Vanguard; it’s the second record that you’ve done with this group in particular, and I just wonder how is it that you are able to churn this music out so consistently and so beautifully?”

Tom Harrell: “I try to keep it up everyday. It’s like anything else, you can achieve a flow if you do it all the time , so it’s like a door that opens everyday that I can turn to for inspiration of the music.”

WBGO: Tom, we should inform our radio listeners who may not be accustomed to hearing you speak that you have been diagnosed as a schizophrenic and you’ve been living with this condition now for nearly four decades. Is that correct?

TOM: Well, yeah, I guess I do have it; the scary part is there are times when it’s difficult to see reality as I have tenuous reality contact. It is a chemical imbalance so I take medicine for it. But the medicine works so I don’t have the extreme fear that I would have from the condition. In a way, it sort of forces me to be by myself because I don’t always know how to approach social situations. Society keeps changing very rapidly and modes of communication are changing, too. So it seems like I’m not always able to fit into social groups, but playing the trumpet itself kind of forces you into solitude in a sense because being an artist imposes a certain amount of solitude on the artist. Although music is probably the most social … [of the arts]. I was going to go into graphic arts but I was frighten by the solitude that was going to impose on me. But then I realized later that this was also the case with music as well, especially if you spend a lot of time composing. … But Ibsen does say that art is a “Garden of Solitude.”

WBGO: And in some sense, the artistic process, as you say, is a lonely one sometimes. It can be a lonely one in terms of being by yourself, but you are not necessarily alone. There’s a difference there, isn’t there?

TOM: Well yes, because you are always aware that you can bring it to other people and that you are doing something with the ultimate goal of sharing it with people so as I think of Buddha sometimes they said that he went into the mountains to meditate and found this beautiful thing within himself. He wanted to share what he found with other people. So musical composition is like doing that too. I think that ultimately it becomes like a religious experience because those idea that you have when you are by yourself come from somewhere beyond yourself that you want to share with others. Sometimes I hear something in my mind and I want to write it down and as I do this I become more and more inspired.

There are moments when you improvising, too, and you become aware of a sensation that Lester Bowie [Chicago Art Ensemble] once described as: “I play the trumpet, but sometimes the trumpet plays me.” Sometimes when I am playing the trumpet I get this magical feeling that the notes are coming from somewhere else. Sometimes when I’m playing, I might aim for something and then something else comes out. It shows the subconscious at work. Too me, I relate psychiatry and psychology to religion, in the sense that the subconscious is a way for God to speak to us, because it is our Life force. Our entire mind is a Life force and in a sense each person is like a universe. But we have what came before from our ancestors which includes all creation: everything from the beginning of the Universe to what we’ve experienced since we were born. Sometimes what we’ve experienced from out environment I have to fight with in order to be creative. Like the Bhagavad-Gita, in a literal sense is built around a battle between two armies, but it is also sometimes thought of as a symbolic representation of the battle that occurs in one’s mind between good and evil. So I am aware that I have an inner battle, but that’s part of shedding some of the negative aspects of your conditioning and try to be positive in your creativity.

WBGO: I’d like to talk about the process. Right now, Tom Harrell, you and I are sitting in a room in your apartment and there’s keyboards, piano, a drum set; what’s a day-in-the-life of you sitting down and writing music?

TOM: Right now [said laughingly], it’s mostly about playing music. Sometimes I have to sacrifice a certain amount of writing and piano playing to practicing the trumpet because it is such a difficult instrument. So I try to practice as much as I can, at least four hours a day, or even more.

If ideas come to me while I’m practicing, I’ll try to write them down, even if it’s only a fragment, but if I’m really working on getting my technique together right before a concert or a series of concerts, I might not even write down everything I hear. The trumpet basically comes first because I’m known mainly as a trumpet player. So I usually spend more time writing when I have long stretches between concerts. I get into a two-day cycle when I stay up all night and sleep in the next day. It takes away from my trumpet chops, but during these long breaks, I do try to write everyday. I have note books that I keep everything from fragments to ideas in.

WBGO: When you write for this quintet, do you write like Duke Ellington would write; do you write the part for that person?

TOM: Yes, I write for each individual. I try to find things that will make them excited. What makes it worthwhile for me is when the music comes alive while we are performing. That’s one of the beautiful things about Duke Ellington was that he wrote for each individual. That’s my basic motivation is to make people happy.

WBGO: That’s Prana. What is Prana?

TOM: It’s a Life Force. Its what keeps our lives basically moving. It’s part of Yoga breathing and I use it as a way to calm myself.

WBGO: I can imagine that for someone seeing you perform for the very first time, there could be a massive misunderstanding if they didn’t know something abput you before they came to the show. Because you seem to be completely engaged when the trumpet is in your mouth, and then when your solo is gone, you sort of move off to the side of the stage and are not making any kind of eye contact with any of the audience or the band members. Do you think that it is a massive mis-characterization to say that you are not engaged at that point?

TOM: I try to keep the engagement when I am playing, but when I’m not playing it is important, too. I mean that’s the whole reason for living. Long ago, I was introduced to the idea of keeping a groove going along with everything else in life that you are trying to do. I’m still trying to apply that idea. Someone once said: even when you are not practicing, you are practicing. While you are going for a walk you are learning about life; or reading a book – same thing. You can learn something everyday that could apply to your life whether it is musical or non-musical. As a musician, I tend to see everything in terms of music. But everything is related to cosmology and related to it.

WBGO: Tom, thanks for joining us.

TOM: Thank you; nice talking to you.

WBGO: We are looking forward now to hearing you and the quintet at The Village Vanguard.


“We have been criticized for pointing out that he has battled psychiatric illness for many years. It does not define him, either personally or creatively, but schizophrenia has been a shaping influence for much of his adult life. Schizophrenics never make any bones about it, and Harrell has even been known to joke about his condition, once commenting as he entered a hotel suite that there was a room for each of his personalities.” Richard Cook & Brian Morton’s The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD [Loc. cit.].
As the years have moved along in Tom’s career, what was once quietly acknowledge and accepted among the community of musicians in which he performed, became a disclosed condition to the public in general through television interviews like the one with Charlie Rose on CBS’ 60 minutes and magazine articles such as the following one entitled Like Night and Day by Jonathan Eig which appeared in Esquire, December 1998.


© copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“TOM HARRELL, dressed all in black, stands in a dark corner of a crowded Chicago nightclub. Sometimes he prefers a closet, but tonight the corner will do. He's clearing the voices from his head, trying to stay cool. Don't worry, he tells himself over and over, be positive...believe in yourself...count your blessings....The banalities don't stick, but they help push aside the voices a bit, and now he is ready to go to work.

Harrell shuffles out of the darkness and onto the stage, where the four members of his band wait, and he begins shaking. His eyebrows twitch. His lips smack. He stares at the ground, trying hard not to make eye contact with his audience. He doesn't want to give the voices or the hallucinations a chance to pop back into his head. "I apologize for my lack of charisma," he once told a club full of people. As he raises his trumpet, the golden spotlight strikes stars on the horn's bell. Even as he puts the cold mouthpiece to his lips, his twitching never quite stops. He takes a deep breath, and for one frozen moment, all is quiet. Tranquility hangs on an unplayed note.

The trumpeter begins to blow, playing silky ribbons of sixteenth notes that rise and fall. Behind him, the band beats a latin-jazz rhythm. Then he tosses in a handful of slower, cloudier notes that curl and fade away.


Harrell is one of the finest jazz trumpeters in the world. He is also schizophrenic. Backstage after the set, he is impossible to talk to. He sits alone on a ragged sofa in a small dressing room. His wife, Angela, ushers me into the room and makes the introduction. I try small talk, but he is unable to speak. His head shakes, and his lips move as if he's trying to release trapped words.

"Jonathan plays the trumpet," Angela tells her husband, trying to break the ice.

I tell him that I would like to interview him at his home in New York.

He tries again to form sounds. Nothing. Fifteen seconds of silence pass, and I am tempted several times to fill the empty space with babble.

"Bring your trumpet," he finally says.

I arrive on a hot Friday afternoon in August, trumpet case slung over my shoulder. Harrell lives in Washington Heights, and his apartment has a gorgeous view of the George Washington Bridge, the Hudson River, and the Palisades. But on the day of my visit, as on most days, the curtains are drawn. The place smells of grilled steak, which Harrell eats, entirely without seasoning, at least once a day. He puts away his dishes and walks slowly out of the kitchen to shake my hand and lead me to a chair. Most of the walls are lined with dark wooden cabinets that hold Harrell's music. Each drawer contains the score for a different composition, and by a quick count, there are at least two hundred drawers.

After saying hello, Harrell vanishes for fifteen minutes, then suddenly joins me at a darkwood dining room table. He appears much as he did in the club: nervous, shaky, and reluctant or unable to communicate. He is dressed all in black, same as always, and he is even taller than I remembered. His shaggy hair and beard have begun turning gray. His lips are purple and moist, like thin slices of raw sirloin, and his pale-blue eyes match almost perfectly the clear sky beyond his curtained windows.

Even though there are no buildings within sight of the apartment, Harrell sometimes believes he is being watched. At other times, he believes his home has been bugged. Quite often, he hears voices. Tom Harrell did this to somebody. Tom Harrell did that to somebody, they say, and those voices sometimes hurl him deep into a ravine of guilt and depression. When the voices speak, or when visual hallucinations beset him, his shaking worsens. Angela advises me not to use a tape recorder during the interview and to be prepared to come back another day if he doesn't want to talk.

Tom Harrell was born in 1946 in Urbana, Illinois, and grew up in Los Altos, California. His father taught business psychology at Stanford, and his mother worked as a statistician. Tom topped his father's IQ of 146, and he early on showed extraordinary talent in music and art. By the time he was eight, he was writing and illustrating his own children's books, which revealed the work of a precocious, original mind. In one book, young Tom told the story of a little boy who goes to a doctor for treatment of a mosquito bite and gets diagnosed with 'scissor-birds, dog-turtles' and other animal hybrids that he invented.


It was his father's constant whistling and his impressive jazz record collection that inspired Tom to begin playing the trumpet. By the time he turned thirteen, he was jamming with professional bands around the Bay Area. When he was seventeen, he went off to Stanford, and it was at about that time that his parents and sister began to notice that the buoyancy was draining from his personality. He became surly and aloof, a social misfit, and, at one very low point, he tried to kill himself.

When he was in his early twenties, Harrell was diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder, which combines the paranoia of schizophrenia with the wild mood swings of manic depression, and he was given drugs to help control the condition. The medication slowed his speech, gave him headaches, and robbed him of sleep, but he was able to carry on as a professional musician, working his way from band to band.

Only in the world of jazz, where abnormal behavior has always been the tradition, could Harrell fit so nicely. After all, Charles Mingus spent time in the mental ward at Bellevue, Bud Powell did his own tour of psychiatric hospitals, the great Sun Ra thought he came from another planet, and Thelonious Monk probably did.

Harrell has recorded a dozen albums for small record companies. But in the past two years, since he signed a contract with the RCA Victor label, he's begun to gain recognition outside the hardcore group of fans who had previously followed his work. The readers of Down Beat recently voted him the world's best trumpet player. With his major-label releases, most recently The Art of Rhythm, even the mainstream press has begun to take note.

"Pure melodic genius," declared one discerning newsmagazine.

And the melodies are the genius's own. Harrell prefers his original compositions to standards, He warns listeners to work as they listen, to attempt to understand the feelings behind his songs.

The musicians who have worked with Harrell report some odd moments as well as magical ones. In an airport, if the hustle and bustle become too much for him, he might wander off to a quiet spot in a parking garage and blow his trumpet until the noises in his head hush. Sometimes he will hear a chord in the hum of the refrigerator or the engine of a passing jet and work the rest of the day writing a composition based on what he has heard. Once, on a cab ride in Los Angeles with bandmate Gregory Tardy, Harrell began weeping uncontrollably because he was struck by the beauty of a tune on the cabbies radio. Tardy can't remember the song, but he says it was some Top Forty pop number he had heard a hundred times and never paid attention to before.

Angela travels with Harrell and helps keep him from getting distracted. His need for intense periods of quiet concentration guides almost every moment of his life. When he has a gig, he won't leave his apartment or his hotel room until it is time to play. He sends Angela to do the sound check and bring him food. Harrell says he feels awfully alone at times. He sometimes thinks life would be easier if he were to work full-time as a composer and arranger, because he wouldn't have to face the pressures of travel and three-set-a-night gigs. But Angela and his band-mates account for almost all the human companionship he's got, and he can't stand the thought of being isolated.


Once, a few years ago, after his medicine caused a toxic reaction and nearly killed him, Harrell stopped taking it. The results were fascinating and frightening. His moods changed more quickly and furiously than ever, from happy to sad, confident to insecure. His posture improved, his tremors vanished, and he became something close to affable. He would buy bags of groceries and leave them in front of his neighbors' doors as anonymous gifts. On the bandstand, when his turn came to solo, he would stun his audiences by scat singing in falsetto. His emergent personality was wonderful, and it was terrifying. He would go for five-hour walks in the middle of the night, and he would frequently leave all the taps in the apartment running, in tribute, he said, to the Water God.

Harrell never quite looks me in the eye. He stares at his lap, hops quickly from one thought to the next, and raises his eyelids only briefly. At one point, he says he doesn't think he should go on speaking to me, because he feels tremendous guilt for not having been born black. Jazz is black music, he says, and it seems unfair for a white man to be celebrated for his work. He can't separate himself from these thoughts, and all my attempts to change the subject are in vain. He begins to cry, and he lets the tears roll into his beard. He excuses himself, and twenty minutes later he returns with a tall glass of milk and acts as if nothing had happened. He glances at my trumpet case and a book of music paper I have with me. "Do you compose?" he asks.

"No," I say. "But my teacher wants me to write a new melody based on the chords to 'Night and Day.' "

He looks at my weak attempt.

"Oh, this is really nice," he says. His voice is high and pinched in the throat, and my mind scrambles from one television cartoon character to another, trying to place it. "You have some nice ideas here,"

He is incapable of criticizing, except when it applies to himself, but we are off and running, at least, talking about flat nines and flat flat nines and some other nines I pretend to understand. He is most comfortable on the subject of music, about the lovely way Louis Armstrong used scat singing to show that words were not needed to communicate feelings, about how Miles Davis played many of the same rhythms as Armstrong yet cast them in darker colors, and about Charlie Parker's belief that great music is born when musicians forget their long hours of study at the moment of creation.


"You merge with the infinite and transcend your ego," he says, describing how it feels to play. He takes a long, shaky pause. "Sometimes it seems to flow without any conscious effort."

All music has the human cry at its base, he says, and even the saddest songs can lead people out of the darkness of depression. "I think the more emotion you experience, the more you can bring to the music," he says. "Some people say you don't have to suffer to play music...." He takes another long pause. "I don't know, but, umm..." His eyebrows begin leaping wildly, his mouth moves in silence, and his head shakes side to side so much I begin to think he's stable now and the whole room is moving behind him. "That's a really difficult question. You don't want to be self-destructive. At the same time, sadness is a part of everyone's life, and music can express the sadness people are feeling and bring them together. You shouldn't hide from your feelings.

"Sometimes, I guess when I get paranoid, it can make me distracted," he continues. "But sometimes, if I feel really depressed, it can give me humility, which makes it sometimes easier to concentrate, which makes it easier to transcend my ego. I may be drawn to worrying because it's a form of excitement."
When Harrell runs out of words, he takes me into his music studio, a sound-proof extra bedroom with double-paned windows and closed curtains. There are dozens of tubes of lip balm and hundreds of sheets of handwritten music scattered about. He sits at his keyboard and stares at a work in progress for trumpet and strings.

"Play it," Angela gently requests.

The opening chords are very sad. The music moves slowly, by half steps and subtle shades. The key signature is in a constant state of flux, like a chameleon moving from plant to wall, sunlight to shade. Harrell's spine curls into a question mark. He stares straight ahead at the lightly penciled notes, concentrating intensely as his milk-white fingers move slowly over the keys. I hear dark holes without bottom and chaos brought barely under the control of the composer's hand. This is the source of the strength in Harrell's music. He shows us the darkness and confusion, and he makes beauty from it.

Harrell is at peace now. When he finishes, he looks at me and holds his gaze.

"That was so sad," I say.

He smiles, for the first time.

"Thanks," he says. He takes a long pause. The twitching has almost vanished.

"Wanna do 'Night and Day'?" he asks.”


To be continued in Tom Harrell Part 2 – A Retrospective and The Recordings