Tom Harrell at the Village Vanguard, May 13th

Before the lights went down at the Village Vanguard Friday night, before the crowd of about 50 had finished settling into their seats, before any of the musicians had even taken to their instruments – Tom Harell stood on stage, alone. His back was rounded, his hands hung limply by his sides, and on his face was a serene but distant smile. His stooped figure, cloaked in an all black suit, was a beautiful thing to behold. It was trancelike, peaceful, almost meditative. In truth, Tom looked as though he was partaking in a religious ceremony, an opening prayer, or a grace before dinner. But then, in a matter of seconds, the brooding introspection seemed to disappear. Because no sooner had Harrell brought the trumpet to his lips than the moment of prayer ended. And just like that there was music – smart, beautiful, emotionally inspired music.

During this most recent stop at the Village Vanguard, Harrell and his quintet – Wayne Escoffery on tenor sax, Ugonna Okegwo on bass, Danny Grissett on piano, and Otis Brown (filling in for Jonathan Blake) on drums – played music from their latest album, Time of the Sun. The opening number, a straight-ahead arrangement of Monk’s “Rhythm-A-Ning,” featured an exciting solo section and an abundance of funky, quoted riffs, and provided a nice stepping stone to the band’s next piece, a bright but forceful bossa nova introduced by a driving eighth-note riff and a pounding, syncopated beat. Harrell used this tune to establish his style as a soloist, playing a series of short, staccato licks that when strung together became a thematic expression of sound and rhythm.

The next song, “Esturary,” was a dark and ominous modal piece set in 7/4. A testament to Harrell’s ability to portray human emotion through harmonic balance, the melody began with Escoffery and Harrell playing a series of unison whole notes, made even more poignant against the harmonically dense backdrop of Grissett’s dissonant voicings and Okegwo’s pulsing bass line. Just as harmonically daring were the solos on this tune. Harrell’s started with a repetitive eighth-note run, which launched seamlessly into a series of wide intervallic leaps. Escoffery played a whole chorus of long, sustained high notes, adding yet another layer to the tune’s already complex harmonic density. Grissett’s solo featured a chorus of tellingly placed block chords that blended nicely with the consistency and precision of Brown’s drumming.

The group’s next tune again featured Brown, this time with the talented drummer using his fingers on the snare to create a hip, Afro-Cuban feel, which acted as the perfect counterpoint to the droning low notes of Okegwo’s bass line. Harrell soloed with the Flugelhorn on this piece, yet his tone was nearly indistinguishable from that of his trumpet. The smoothness of his sound and the ingenuity of his phrasing made his long, complex eighth-note runs sound all the more melodic. Escoffery’s solo was bright and modern on this tune, a bold mixture of conventional and progressive techniques.

Harrell followed with a ballad, a kind of musical dialogue between himself and Okegwo that turned out to be one of the concert’s most poignant moments. Harrell, who on-stage appeared taciturn and removed, expressed himself beautifully on this tune, using a musical language which, despite the mental static of his schizophrenic mind, he can still speak with unparalleled eloquence.

Harrell’s quintet was assertive on the next song, a funky, in-the-pocket groove punctuated by Grissett’s right hand piano vamp and Okegwo’s explosive bass line. Harrell played a brilliant solo on this piece, one that had him running the entirety of his range within a single lick.

The set closed with a Latin tune featuring contrapuntal horn and piano riffs rising chromatically by half-steps. The piece demonstrated Harrell’s genius as a composer. With measure after measure of harmonically altered chords, the song allowed the musicians to express themselves without constraint. Escoffery’s solo interspersed dissonant harmonies with poppy, conventional licks, and was some of his best playing of the night. Grissett’s solo was equally assertive. It emphasized a clunky, polyrhythmic riff that brought the band into a time-bending rubado crawl. And Harrell’s solo, like always, was full of creative patterns and endlessly imaginative riffs.

The set at the Village Vanguard ended the same way it began – with Harrell retreating back into his trancelike, meditative stance. As the music came to a close, his face was once again an image of serenity and for a while, everything was quiet. But for Tom the closing of each concert signals the beginning of another one: the cacophony of voices that play nightly in his own head. Until his next show he will grapple with them, struggling, with the aid of medication, against their tormenting words. And yet, in those brief moments before and after each show, Tom seems happy. One can only imagine he has found peace.

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Brian Zimmerman