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Tom Harrell: First Impressions: Debussy and Ravel Project

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Tom Harrell is in a classical mood on his genre-blending First Impressions. This isn’t new for the brilliant trumpeter-composer. The six-part suite The Adventures of a Quixotic Character, off Harrell’s 2014 album Trip, had a classical feel to it, and this new album’s liner notes, by Robert Baird, trace Harrell’s blending of classical music and jazz in his earlier work. But the emphasis of that fusion is heightened on First Impressions, and the jazz/classical recipe is seasoned with tastes of other styles as well.

The eight tracks here include Harrell arrangements of four pieces by Debussy (“Beau Soir,” “Reverie,” “Passepied,” “Sarabande”), two by Ravel (“Sainte,” “Voices”) and two new compositions of his own, “Perspectives” and “Musique du Cafe.” They’re performed by his crack working quintet with Wayne Escoffery on soprano and tenors saxophones, Danny Grissett on piano, Ugonna Okegwo on bass and Johnathan Blake on drums, augmented by flute, guitar, violin and cello. Latin influences-bossa, baião, hints of tango and flamenco-insinuate themselves here and there amid all the classical impressionism, as does a touch of hip-hop rhythm beneath the leader’s solo on “Sainte.” The quintet’s straight-ahead prowess is deployed too-Blake’s transitional solo on “Perspectives” and Grissett’s and Escoffery’s deft turns atop the Okegwo-fueled “Reverie” are among the other highlights.

Harrell, of course, blows as beautifully as ever. More significant, the 69-year-old master makes clear that it isn’t just millennials who are currently embracing an eclectic approach to jazz composition. “I think all forms of music, even popular music, are close to jazz and classical music,” Harrell declares in Baird’s album notes. “There’s been a revolution in musical composition. Composers are utilizing pop elements, which would have been unheard of a short time ago, but now it’s really accepted.”