Though there have been several vital strains of music since the '50s that have been lumped together under the rubric chamber jazz, the term is currently applied mainly to drummerless ensembles that, like the prototypical Jimmy Giuffre 3 of the early '60s, have an ardent envelope-pushing agenda. Fewer artists have pursued the less stridently avantish example of the Chico Hamilton Quintets of the '50s, whose earnest integration of the cello and smart compositional devices never subverted the mainstream jazz core of the music.
Paradise, flugelhornist-trumpeter Tom Harrell's album-length foray into chamber jazz, is much closer to Hamilton's approach, but it isn't beholden to any single strain in the genre. His use of strings and harp leans toward the mood-setting vignettes of jazz-influenced film scores instead of the arch formalism of contemporary chamber music, and he seems adamantly uninterested in creating statements challenging the tenets of modern jazz. At a time when chamber jazz too frequently mirrors the dilemma of modern art Tom Wolfe lampooned in The Painted Word-where the painting, in a gallery, is dwarfed by the panel containing its articulation-it is refreshing that Harrell's idyllic agenda is covered by the album's title alone.
Many composers enter into the chamber-jazz arena to prove their mettle as conceptualists; Harrell's priorities are more centered on craftsmanship and emotional expression. At one level, Harrell's compositions on Paradise are appealing jazz tunes that stand up to repeated listens, which speaks to the lack of conceit in the work. Harrell's keen ear for complementary palettes allows the orchestrations to creep up and caress the ear. One can dicker over Harrell's sophistication as an orchestrater, but the plainly stated functionality of much of his writing for strings and harp does not diminish his overall command in conveying sensuality and beauty. Harrell confirms the virtue of simplicity within seconds of the opener, "Daybreak": the harp outlines the opening descending figure, then slips away, allowing the well-blended front line of Harrell and tenor saxophonist Jimmy Greene to shift rhythmic gears with round-toned, hard-bop phrases. It's the tip-off that Harrell doesn't intend for the orchestrations to carry the tunes, only enhance them.
The ensuing pieces, "Baroque Steps" and "Nighttime," begin to fully flesh out Harrell's jazz-with-strings aesthetic. The rhythmic and emotional tug of the former, a subdued soul-jazz chant, stems from the rub between a chugging cello part and a second hovering arco line that feeds the quiet fire of Harrell's solo. The latter seems somewhat indebted to Gato Barbieri's ballad interludes in his score for Last Tango in Paris, as it develops an incisive motive with a palpably romantic sheen in the strings. Unlike Barbieri's tenor, however, which burned a hole through the gauze, Harrell's solo seeps through like smoke, occasionally trailed by the harp. In both cases, Harrell gets over the bar on two crucial points: the arrangements serve both the emotional core of the compositions and Harrell's gifts as a soloist. There is a telling glimpse of his approach to unaccompanied strings on "Nighttime," when the strings state the pensive transition to the well-considered duo exchange between Harrell and pianist Xavier Davis, whose fine ensemble work repeatedly contributes to the program's on-point demeanor.
It is not until the second half of the program that the nearly seven-minute "Morning Prayer, Part 1" finally allows Harrell to write something substantial for unaccompanied strings without regard for the needs of a jazz sextet (Harrell's is rounded out by guitarist Freddie Bryant, bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummers Leon Parker and Adam Cruz). Here, Harrell mixes his strong motivic inclinations with carefully etched counterpoint and grave jazz-noir lyricism, which suggests Harrell is not giving thanks for a new day, but for survival of the night.
There are a few points on Paradise where Harrell's music feels so good, particularly on the smoothly soaring "Morning Prayer, Part 2." The samba-tinged piece neither works as a resolution of the first part, nor does it have the elegant jazz construction of tunes like "Daybreak." But these are minor diversions, as this generally cogent album confirms the depth and clarity of Tom Harrell's art.