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Tom Harrell: Wise Children

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Pitfalls loom everywhere on this disc. Busy charts full of seemingly incongruous effects, accordion, a string quartet, French horns, Latin and rock-fusion rhythms, burbling electric bass, static harmonies, faintly haunting echoes, four famous vocalists singing bland lyrics-it’s a glossy, heavily produced album that should please jazz radio programmers who shun straightahead jazz. But swinging Tom Harrell has a basic B.S. detector, or maybe a pure heart, that miraculously avoids most of the pitfalls. Thus the multiple-tracked trumpet passages of “Kalimba” yield not mere exotic color but melody lines with genuine continuity. Thus Jane Monheit’s hammy ballad vocal “Snow” is followed by a lyric flugelhorn solo with simple piano accompaniment, and the showpiece “Paz” is not just an elaborate succession of sounds and textures, with a recurring stop-time routine, but rather a flowing piece with ongoing ensemble complement to the trumpet. And so on.

Most of the CD is a showcase for Harrell’s fine trumpet and flugelhorn soloing. His middle-register lyricism is of course well-known. His lines typically move with internal musical naturalness; without double-time interjections or high-note flights he nevertheless offers recurring drama through his mastery of rhythmic contrasts between phrases and contrasts with his accompanists; moreover, as in the later stages of “Paz,” he can create passages of subtle, moving complexity. Rarely, we hear phrases that recall other trumpeters, for instance Art Farmer or Miles Davis, but shed of Farmer’s romance or Davis’ stylized melancholy-instead, they’re woven into the fabric of Harrell’s own emotionality. Altogether his playing gives this disc a clear-headed, optimistic feeling, apart from the concluding title piece. Even that slow, somber track, with rich brass harmonies, has a sensitive, reflective trumpet solo, not dark or moody: this is an authoritative artist.

The other three famous singers are a musical Dianne Reeves, who hums a pleasant countermelody to the trumpet’s musings (“Straight to My Heart”), Claudia Acuña (“Radiant Moon”) and Cassandra Wilson, who is not the one who can rescue “Leaves.” As for Harrell’s fine band, there are a handful of attractive solos, all brief, by ’60s-modal-oriented pianist Xavier Davis and post-Jacquet, post-Turrentine tenorman Jimmy Greene-hear the wavery, sour-milk tones that open his “Radiant Moon” solo-while Myron Walden (rollercoaster alto sax) and Marvin Sewell (very bluesy guitar) also solo in “What Will They Think of Next.” As for Harrell’s composing, I wish his scores had more of the melodic ingenuity of his improvising; “Snow” and “Leaves” are especially weak melody lines. But in general the CD proves satisfying in surprising ways.