Some post-bop jazz instrumentalists give the impression that incoherence is of no consequence to them, or that it's a joke at the audience's expense, like the old idea that beauty is still possible, let alone necessary. Tom Harrell, one of the foremost jazz trumpeters and composers working today, literally has to fight for coherence, and he takes beauty seriously. Harrell is schizophrenic. The threshold between creative clarity and noise is not an abstract conceit in his music or his life; it's a daily high-wire walk.
Harrell brings his quintet back to Yoshi's for four days this week. He cuts a peculiar figure onstage, usually standing stiffly in one place, trying hard to contain the tremors in his body and mind, and intermittently unleashing a generous gale of melody through his horn. He plays with such refined, lyrical surety that his compelling musical presence is almost ludicrously affirmative; it's not hard to laugh and cry at the sight and sound of him.
Undoubtedly, this is one reason for Harrell's broadening appeal -- people want to be amazed by his lucidity, and will line up to witness the tense and satisfying drama of his performance. Another reason is the manifest combination of his natural talent and unswerving discipline.
"It's good for me to have something to work on each day," he said in a recent call from his home in New York. "I try to work as hard as I can on music, and in a way, the music provides the direction for living. It shows how if you work hard enough, you can improve your chops and get stronger, or you can get more of a flow in your writing -- and hopefully improve your ability to relate to other people." His voice slightly cobbled by the effects of medication, Harrell speaks carefully. His ideas, like his music, reward attention.
He has made a necessarily fractured view of the world into a creative asset. In some ways he seems to thrive on dichotomies, pluralities of possibility, and contradictory impulses. "California is known for being really advanced in the arts and in lifestyle," he fondly recalled, "and it's a place where you can relax too!"
Harrell, 56, was born in Illinois, but he grew up in Los Altos, and became a professional musician before he was old enough to drive. "I got a lot of really great musical experience in the Bay Area, and I always enjoy playing there," he said. "There's a lot of great regional influences." Those include the shifting Latin rhythms, hard-bop urgency, and fat harmonic structures that infuse his compositions. "There are still a lot of possibilities for combining jazz with Brazilian music," he mused. "The pulse of Latin music creates a momentum which combines really well with the harmonies of jazz and European classical." Clearly, he listens voraciously.
Until hearing him, it's tempting to think that critics have gone easy on Harrell from pity, but the ambitious modernist complexity of his music swiftly dispatches any sentimentality, and his ability to create real empathy is a rare artistic gift. He works hard to share it.