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A veteran known for his lyrical compositions and full, round tone, Tom Harrell is one of the jazz world's most respected mainstream trumpeters. He's racked up accolades from critics and reader polls, his discography houses more than 20 discs under his own name, and he's been gigging with jazz legends for 40 years. He brought his horn, his quintet and his experience into the Village Vanguard, in a concert broadcast live by WBGO and streamed live on the Web at NPR Music.
As was expected, Harrell called several numbers from his quintet's latest album Prana Dance, released earlier this year, including the hard-swinging opener "Sequenza" and deftly playful "Marching." But the group also ran through several of Harrell's older tunes, showcasing a diverse catalog which remained immediately accessible in spite of complex time signatures, rhythms and harmonic layers. Harrell himself proved a stylistic chameleon, forceful when taking on unclassifiable modal jams ("Blue News"), adept on mutable Latin rhythms (set closer "Otra"), and rich and warm on slower, atmospheric tunes (the ballad "Nighttime"). On stage, he was backed by a band of first-call New York sidemen who all lead their own touring bands: saxophonist Wayne Escoffery and pianist Danny Grissett had plenty of time to stretch out for themselves, and bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Johnathan Blake buoyed the band in both its hairiest and calmest moments.
Harrell has plenty of experience in big bands: One of his first big touring gigs was with Stan Kenton, and he has recorded many of his own large ensembles. But he's earned his chops in extended stays in small groups, notably those of Horace Silver and Phil Woods. Harrell has been recording his own combos since the 1970s, and has been working with his current quintet since 2007's Light On.
Harrell does it all in spite of — or perhaps as a distraction from — a potentially debilitating diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. Though medications keep his illness under control, he is known to become noticeably more animated as soon as he lifts the horn to his mouth. Village Vanguard regulars should be familiar with Harrell's sound; in recent years, he has played a week at the club every year, and in 2002, he released a live album recorded on its stage.