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Tom Harrell: Light On

Jazz critics can’t seem to write a sentence about trumpeter Tom Harrell without mentioning his long battle with schizophrenia (see?). While his illness surely must inform his music, the relationship is more apparent onstage than on record, where he comes across as one of the more pensive craftsmen around. He gets deep inside his own music, dragging the listener in with him. You can get lost in it. It becomes an isolation chamber.

Neil Tesser writes in the liner notes that it takes a couple of days to appreciate Light On fully, and he’s right. The phrase “rewards repeated listens” is often a red flag that an album isn’t very good, but in this case the adage holds up. I didn’t “get” Light On the first time through-it came across as unambitious and undistinguished. By round three it was getting under my skin in a good way. It is at once complicated and accessible, mirthful and mature.

Harrell’s compositions are open-all the tunes here are his-and the playing, especially his on both trumpet and flugelhorn, is immaculate. Solos contrast with melody and chord changes. Rhythms employ unpredictable structures, such as on “Va,” on which drummer Jonathan Blake mixes a rock backbeat into the postbop framework, and “The Gronk,” on which the quintet takes on a Brazilian lilt. Soloists vie for attention: “Sky Life” finds tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery and pianist Danny Grissett (on the Fender Rhodes here) circling around each other while bassist Ugonna Okegwo props them up. The band mostly plays at slower and medium tempos, but they burn hot-white on “Bad Stuff,” which is anything but.

Originally Published