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Tom Harrell: Oak Tree (HighNote)

A review of the trumpet and flugelhorn virtuoso's set of appealing, sometimes quirky originals

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Tom Harrell: Oak Tree (HighNote)
The cover of Oak Tree by Tom Harrell

Would it be overpraising Tom Harrell to describe his long recording career as practically peerless? Album after album, sometimes year after year, the Midwest-bred trumpet and flugelhorn virtuoso—leading quartets, quintets, and sometimes even chamber orchestras—has continued to release surprising new music. At 76, he’s still unearthing fresh sounds while digging deep into the jazz tradition, simultaneously referencing the brass players and bandleaders who preceded him and pointing to something new.

Oak Tree is yet another keeper. Joined by longtime bandmates Ugonna Okegwo on bass and Adam Cruz on drums, plus Venezuelan-born pianist Luis Perdomo, a relatively recent addition to his lineups, Harrell again offers a set of appealing, sometimes quirky originals. For opening track “Evoorg” (spell it backwards), he provides a master lesson in solo construction: Deploying a reassuringly warm trumpet tone, he alternates between melodic passages and waterfalling sprays of long phrases. He sometimes incorporates repetition, playing a string of similar phrases, each one configured slightly differently.

Harrell subtly nods to various influences. “Fivin’” has the leader mostly hitting the same note, playing the start-stop melody as the rhythm section shifts chords around him; it hints at Monk’s “Think of One,” combined with some ’70s electric-jazz flavors courtesy of Perdomo’s work on Rhodes. Tadd Dameron-style bop helps define “Improv,” with its deeply swinging groove fueling some of the album’s most inspired solos. “Archaeopteryx,” from its title to its high-flying improvisations, points to Charlie Parker.

The album ventures into varied stylistic terrain too. The aptly titled “Sun Up,” by rights the jazz anthem of the summer, is shaded in tropical colors, particularly reggae-tinted rhythms, and Okegwo sneaks in a sly quote of “Take Five.” And “Zatoichi,” named for the blind swordsman of Japanese pop culture, touches on free-jazz terrain. Like nearly everything else here, it slays.

Learn more about Oak Tree on Amazon and Apple Music.

Tom Harrell: Senses and Sensibilities

Philip Booth

Philip Booth is a longtime arts journalist and bass player based in Florida. Formerly the pop music critic for the Tampa Tribune, he has contributed to many national publications, recently including the Washington PostJazziz, and Relix. His byline also has appeared in DownBeat, Bass Player, Billboard, Variety, Spin, Rolling Stone, and several academic journals. Sharkskin, the second album from his long-running band, Acme Jazz Garage, has aired on radio stations across the U.S.