In the fall of 1993 I went to the Greenwich Village club Visiones with a couple friends from Rutgers to hear Tom Harrell’s Quintet. The band was, I think, a one-time-only assemblage, though the players (Danilo Perez on piano, Ray Drummond on bass, Leon Parker on drums and Don Braden on tenor saxophone) all have recorded with Harrell a fair bit. I knew a bit about Harrell’s work, having been friends and sometimes roommates with a trumpet player named Noah Bloom who was very knowledgeable about Harrell and had exposed me to some of his records as a leader and as a member of the Phil Woods Quintet. In any case, the music I heard that night (three songs on the list below plus Ornette Coleman’s “Blues Connotation”) changed me forever. His soloing, bandleading and especially writing left a huge mark and led me to 20 subsequent years of studying his music while also seeing two close friends (saxophonists Jimmy Greene and Wayne Escoffery) spend significant time in his band.
Going to a show the other night at Groove (the club now inhabiting the space that formerly housed Visiones) brought it all back and inspired me to lay out some of my favorite moments in the Tom Harrell discography.
1 ) “Scene” from Form
This was the closing number from the show at Visiones and still stands out to me as a crowning example of Harrell’s renowned lyricism both as a trumpet player and a composer. He, Joe Lovano and Danilo Perez all play gorgeous solos over the sensitive, elastic accompaniment of Charlie Haden and Paul Motian.
2 ) “Blues In Six” from Moon Alley
This album is easily one of my Top 10 records from the 1980s. Inspired writing and playing from Harrell, fiery work from a young Kenny Garrett and a driving, locked-in rhythm section of Kenny Barron, Ray Drummond and Ralph Peterson, Jr. add up to one of the highlights of the Criss Cross Records discography.
3 ) “Hope St.” from Sail Away
Why is this album not in print? Totally ludicrous. This hard-driving track is almost-arbitrary in that, like the album above, I love every cut on this record. The soloists aside from Harrell include Dave Liebman on soprano saxophone, John Abercrombie on guitar, James Williams on piano and Ray Drummond on bass.
4 ) “Sail Away” from Live at the Village Vanguard by Joe Lovano
Joe Lovano is the leader in this case, with a wonderful piano-less quartet with Anthony Cox and Billy Hart. The song, though, is by Harrell, a gentle Latin-vibed tune originally recorded as the title track of the album mentioned above. It is probably his best-loved song and has been subsequently recorded by Kenny Barron’s trio, Ron Carter’s big band and others.
5 ) “Dream Text” from The Time of the Sun
This funky tune represents the (as of this writing) current incarnation of Tom’s Quintet, featuring Wayne Escoffery, Danny Grissett, Ugonna Okegwo and Johnathan Blake. Regardless of lower back health, my hips move whenever I hear this one.
6 ) “Because I Love You” from Visions
This swinging, Clifford Brown-esque tune is another tune from the set list of that magical night at Visiones. He and Swiss alto saxophonist George Robert team up here with Hal Galper, Steve Gilmore and Bill Goodwin, Tom’s rhythm section cohorts from the Phil Woods Quintet.
7 ) “Emergence” from Upswing
The opening number from that 1993 show, is this rocking track from his then-new album on the audiophile Chesky label. The band is a mish-mash of frequent associates from different settings in his career, including Joe Lovano, Phil Woods and Danilo Perez.
8 ) “Time’s Mirror” from Gratitude by Phil Woods
This is another great example of a Harrell tune recorded under someone else’s leadership and a fine example among the still-in-print albums he did with Phil Woods’ tight and underapreciatedly important Quintet.
9 ) “Baroque Steps” from Paradise
There had to be at least one song here to represent Harrell’s gorgeous writing for strings. A subtly funky Latin groove and lush, modern string textures provide an inviting backdrop for solos by Harrell and tenor saxophonist Jimmy Greene.
10 ) “Assimilation” from Silver ‘n’ Wood by Horace Silver
The one tune on the list not composed by Harrell is this tour-de-force from his days alongside frequent collaborator Bob Berg in Horace Silver’s band. This helps illustrate the simple but important point that, for all his great contributions as a composer and a developer of modern sounds, ultimately Tom Harrell also has a great legacy of simply playing the s*** out of the trumpet!