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Tom Harrell: Live at the Village Vanguard

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.

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