Mood Indigo

Out of his dark cocoon: Tom Harrell

Out of his dark cocoon: Tom Harrell

In the late Sixties, Tom Harrell nearly slipped into the shadows. The brilliant trumpet player had been jamming with professional jazz musicians in the Bay Area since age 13, weaned on his father's jazz records in Los Altos, California. But while attending Stanford, he fell into an aloof, suicidal state, and was soon diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder, a condition that cruelly combines the paranoia of schizophrenia with the crippling mood swings of manic depression.

Today the 53-year-old takes a regular dose of tranquilizers to keep reality close at hand. But as the critical establishment has begun giving him the recognition he deserves, more than a few writers have glossed over his ailment and the on-again, off-again side effects of its treatment--slowed speech, nervousness, the shakes, and an unwillingness or inability to communicate. Journalists may believe that dwelling on the barely managed madness of a musician, especially a jazz musician, is cliché or, worse, sensational.

But an awareness of Harrell's disorder is as crucial to understanding him as having a familiarity with his influences (from Louis Armstrong to Lee Konitz), his stints as a sideman (from Woody Herman's Thundering Herds to Charlie Haden's Liberation Orchestra), or his awards (Down Beat readers routinely name him "Best Jazz Trumpet Player"). Not because schizophrenia defines this man or explains his music, but because it can't--which is no small feat, considering that more than a few artists have been swallowed whole by their psychic demons.

When Harrell puts his lips to his horn--and often only then--the dark cocoon around him appears to dissipate. He's suddenly animated, articulate. He appears to feel life's joy, embrace its melancholy, and refuse to back down. Listening to Harrell pour forth, you can hear what Louis Armstrong meant when he said, "Jazz is only what you are."

Anyone catching Harrell when he performs at the Artists' Quarter in St. Paul this weekend might find the contrast between his jittery stage presence and musical eloquence a bit jarring. While setting up, Harrell's seemingly lost eyes will scan the floor as he stands slouched into a question mark. He might even mutter a bit onstage, as he endures the torture every recluse feels in the public eye. When he stands arrow-straight to play, though, everything will change. There will be a focused surge followed by a calm shift into effortless playing; he's birthing his own cool.

Harrell's technique is downright ethereal. There's no gut-bucket groove, à la Nicholas Payton or Roy Hargrove, none of the reverential hush or brassy spiritualism of a Wynton Marsalis. Harrell's tone, especially on flügelhorn, is the stuff of a reed instrument, smooth as a 20-year-old Scotch. Even on trumpet, he plays quick runs with a feathery staccato. On ballads the sound is supple and bittersweet. For his uptempo tunes, he merely sprinkles on some melodic spice. There is no fusillade of notes and noise, no tasteless bombast.

When Harrell isn't playing, he expresses himself on paper. His small apartment on New York's Upper West Side is said to be littered with compositional works in progress. And the same subtlety that characterizes his instrumental technique is present in his creations, which have been celebrated by everyone from frequent co-conspirator Joe Lovano to former mentor Horace Silver. On his new album, Time's Mirror (BMG), there are five originals penned for big band, including the soft Latin tinge of "São Paulo" and the bluesy bop of "Train Shuffle," plus four rearranged classics, including Johnny Mercer's "Dream" and Charlie Parker's "Chasin' the Bird." The set's most memorable charts combine an Ellingtonian tunefulness with the lush, exotic harmonics that marked Miles Davis's work with Gil Evans. But Harrell is no copycat. His originals, just like his solos, have a unique swagger, a lust for tonal adventure that once won him praise from that ageless avant-guardian Ornette Coleman.

Time's Mirror shows Harrell in all his musical sociability, another quality he can't express as well in other settings. Here he seems more interested in collaboration than introspection. Every member of the album's 18-piece ensemble is allowed space to stretch and tickle his creative muse. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Harrell hasn't begun grandstanding just because he's finally enjoying a smattering of fame.

This is good news for those planning to see him this weekend, when he'll be working with a pickup band of local musicians. Instead of forcing them to play backup, Harrell will more likely encourage the group to engage in a discussion--to talk back. Drowning out the voices in one's head has been turned into a group affair.