LIVE: The Tom Harrell Quintet @ A Place for Jazz, 9/14/12

Tom Harrell
Tom Harrell

Review by Richard Brody
Photographs by Albert Brooks

I was eagerly awaiting the fall season opener of “A Place for Jazz” last weekend, since it was the Tom Harrell Quintet. Unfortunately my life got in the way, and I arrived 15 minutes late in the midst of a lengthy drum solo by Jonathan Blake. Within 30 seconds, though, I was tapping my foot, as Blake provided dancing rhythms, power, subtlety, a light touch and an inviting smile.

I was hooked before anyone else in the band played a note.

Harrell’s Quintet has been together for a number of years; their most recent album, “Number Five,” was so named because it is their fifth album together as a band. Tom Harrell has been honored numerous times as both a composer and arranger, as well as for his prowess on the trumpet and flugelhorn, but surprisingly, he still seems to fly under the radar of too many music fans.

One of the reasons might be the incredible difficulty he has in navigating his life outside of music. Mr. Harrell has lived with affective schizophrenia since his late adolescence.

During the band’s performance at the “A Place for Jazz” show at the First Unitarian Society of Schenectady’s Whisperdome, he stood stock still with his eyes cast down toward the floor whenever he was not playing, and there was not a mention of any selection that the band had played or was about to play. The times that he did speak, there was no eye contact. He was clearly very uncomfortable, and his voice was a low rumble that was almost inaudible.

I mention these difficulties because of how they stand in stark contrast to the unforgettable melodies, challenging rhythmic changes and emotionally captivating music that he and his band performed before an appreciative and close-to-capacity audience.

One of the many highlights of the evening was a duet that he performed with pianist Danny Guissett. The warmth of Harrell’s tone and the light airy feeling of Guissett’s playing made me feel as though I was being gently lifted up and carried away. Tenor sax player Wayne Escoffery was solid as an accompanist but was also a good foil for Harrell. At times his solo playing provided the hard edge that was a nice contrast to Harrell’s warm tones.

Rounding out the band on bass was Ugonna Okegwo, who, along with Blake, provided the rhythmic tension that several of the evening’s tunes demanded; he was also outstanding on his mid-show solo.

This was a truly outstanding band whose members were so in synch with one another that it almost seemed as though there was one neurological system with five sets of hands.

Next up on the “A Place for Jazz” fall concert series is veteran jazz vocalist Mary Stallings with her trio at 7:30pm on Friday, September 28. Tix are $15; students $7; and children under 12 are free if they’re with an adult. Memberships are also available. If you have never been to an “A Place for Jazz” concert at the Whisperdome in Schenectady, give yourself a visual and aural treat.

Rudy Lu’s photographs at Albany Jazz
Excerpt from Michael Hochanadel’s review at The Daily Gazette: “Harrell goofed on his famously odd affect early on, moving as if to start, then dropping his hands to his sides in his characteristically withdrawn way; then he smiled and fired up tune One. He closed his eyes when playing, echoing Miles Davis, Clifford Brown and Freddie Hubbard, but always sounding like himself in the graceful way he thought his way through the songs. He dropped his hands otherwise and lowered his head as if voyaging to a distant planet deep in his own mind; but often grinning to himself when the band did cool stuff, which was nearly all the time. Equal parts Silver, Herbie Hancock and Joe Zawinul, Grissett always impressed. Pleasingly visible, a big guy on a small set, Blake was thrillingly right when he played in the pocket, but also fresh. At times he made us imagine the pocket belonged to a pair of pants hung on a clothesline in a high wind.”

Danny Grissett
Danny Grissett
Tom Harrell, Wayne Escoffery and Ugonna Okegwo
Tom Harrell, Wayne Escoffery and Ugonna Okegwo
Danny Grissett, Tom Harrell and Wayne Escoffery
Danny Grissett, Tom Harrell and Wayne Escoffery
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