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July/August 2002

Tom Harrell
Live at the Village Vanguard
Bluebird

This is the first of Harrell's RCA Victor CDs to present his superb quintet on the job. It is a worthy addition to the library of recordings made at the Vanguard by John Coltrane, Bill Evans, the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band, Sonny Rollins and Gerry Mulligan, among others. Harrell does not play flugelhorn this time out, although the fullness and depth of his trumpet often give the impression of the bigger horn. His tonal blend with tenor saxophonist Jimmy Greene makes for a front-line sound that is uncanny in its unity. As the trumpeter reminds us on his "Blues in Una Sea" solo-and every other piece on the album-he is an independent thinker in his playing as well as in his writing, and he intertwines the two elements.

Most of Live at the Village Vanguard consists of new Harrell compositions. A Harrell song is likely to be demanding in harmonic structure, melodic shape, time signature or all three elements, but disguise its rigors with beauty and logic that leave the listener unaware of the underlying complexities. Harrell does not write pieces riding along on obvious changes that encourage facile licks by improvisers. His originality manifests itself in various ways on "When the Rain Begins," "A Child's Dream" and "Asia Minor." Harrell wrote "Design" with Ornette Coleman in mind, but its lines are not approximations of the saxophonist's writing. "Manhattan, 3 a.m." is a tone poem for horns and piano supporting an extended bass solo by Ugonna Okegwo.

Greene is increasingly impressive in his construction of melodic lines that have the intimate quality of good speech. But then, he has been playing night after night in the company of Harrell, a master of improvised musical conversation. The opening phrase of Greene's solo on "Blues in Una Sea" is a pronouncement that might have been played by the young Sonny Rollins. His tag could have come from Ornette Coleman. Greene occasionally plunges into upper-register pitch manipulations that distract from his stories, but he is young and may get past the temptation to let display dominate continuity.

At the beginning of his solo on "Everything Happens to Me," pianist Xavier Davis continues the thought that ends Harrell's solo, a delicious moment in their performance of the set's only standard. Davis' support helps inspire Harrell to one of his most expressive solos on record and encourages the notion that these two, close colleagues by now, should do an album of duets. Davis' brother Quincy is the new drummer in the quintet, playing with balance, taste and fine shading of dynamics.

Originally published in July/August 2002
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