Out of the spotlight, Tom Harrell is a withdrawn, often insecure individual, but when he steps in front of a microphone and raises his horn to his lips, he becomes almost another person. He’s suddenly confident, his tone glowing as he soars into solo flight, vigorously blowing chorus after chorus of exquisitely warm, wonderfully imaginative improvisations.
"Tom Harrell is the best musician I’ve encountered in 40 years of playing music,” says saxophonist Phil Woods, in whose quintet Harrell has played trumpet for the past five years. "I’ve played with some great musicians and I’ve never played with anyone better than Tom Harrell. I think the whole group sounds better because of him.”
Others concur in their praise. "Tom is a natural, instinctive musician,” vocalist Helen Merrill has said. "There is so much depth. He plays from such a wonderfully deep place. It’s so mysterious. When he plays a ballad, he can bring tears.”
Long a favorite sideman on others’ record dates, Harrell now makes his major label debut as a leader with Stories on Contemporary Records. (Harrell did co-lead a Contemporary session, entitled Sun Dance, with Swiss saxophonist George Robert last year.) Produced by Harrell’s Phil Woods bandmate, drummer Bill Goodwin, Stories features Harrell on flugelhorn instead of trumpet. "More and more,” Ken Franckling says in the album’s liner notes, the flugelhorn’s "deeper sound is becoming his studio voice.”
Performing six original compositions from Harrell’s prolific pen, his group on Stories includes several of his longtime associates—tenor saxophonist Bob Berg (Harrell’s old Horace Silver cohort and a Miles Davis alumnus), bassist Ray Drummond, and drummer Billy Hart. On piano is Niels Lan Doky, a Danish musician who, according to Harrell, "does a great job of interpreting my music.” And adding his biting attack to half of the album’s tracks is guitar hero John Scofield.
Tom Harrell was born on June 16, 1946 in Urbana, Illinois, and raised in Los Altos, California, near Stanford University where his father taught. He took up trumpet when he was eight.
"I liked the sound of it,” he says of the horn. "It’s an extroverted sort of instrument. That appealed to me.”
The Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman records in his parents’ collection also appealed to him and the young musician found himself improvising almost immediately. Besides Armstrong, Blue Mitchell and Clifford Brown were early influences. "I still listen to Clifford for inspiration,” Harrell says.
He was gigging around the San Francisco Peninsula, on both trumpet and piano, by the time he was 13 and studied as a teenager with Herb Patnoe, John Handy, Charles Bubb, and Lee Konitz. Graduating from Stanford in 1969 with a degree in music composition, he went on the road with Stan Kenton for a spell, played in Woody Herman’s trumpet section (and soloed on several albums) in 1970 and 1971, spent another year with the innovative Latin-jazz fusion band Azteca, then joined the Horace Silver Quintet in 1973.
"I learned about all the elements of music from him,” Harrell says of Silver, with whose celebrated quintet he was a regular member for four years. "He would always do material with different kinds of rhythmic feels—Latin, funk, straight-ahead—and I’ve been influenced by that when I try to do things on my own. He’s always so definite in his comping. I think it helped my rhythmic awareness because he’s a master of rhythm.”
The Silver gig led Harrell to move to New York City, where he still lives today. The trumpeter cut five albums with Silver for Blue Note, and his presence in the Big Apple led to album dates with many other jazz greats, including Lee Konitz, Bob Brookmeyer, and Bill Evans. (Harrell was featured on Evans’s final album, We Will Meet Again on Warner Bros.)
After leaving Silver, Harrell co-led a big band with bassist Sam Jones and also worked with the likes of Lionel Hampton, Mel Lewis, George Russell, Arnie Lawrence, and Bob Berg. He first played with Phil Woods in 1976 while a member of Chuck Israels’s National Jazz Ensemble. An unissued RCA session with a large Woods ensemble took place the following year and featured arrangements by the trumpeter. He played his first gig with Woods’s combo in 1979 and became a regular member of the group in 1984.
Harrell has accomplished, all of this while suffering from a severe mental handicap. As Ken Franckling explains in his liner notes to Stories:
"Through his music, Harrell is able to cope with schizophrenia, a serious mental disability that was diagnosed while in college about 20 years ago after [Tom] had the first of several nervous breakdowns. The disorder is characterized by loss of contact with one’s environment, a deterioration in the ability to function in everyday life, and a disintegration of personality.
"The powerful medications Harrell must take to control the chemical imbalance that triggered his psychosis have side effects that include muscular weakness and a lethargic appearance. The disorder is such that Harrell’s mind can deal with only one thing—one sense—at a time.
"That absolute need to shut off outside distractions is a musical asset. It lets Harrell focus on his playing and improvising to a far greater degree than other players can. He looks catatonic on the bandstand, yet his mind is actually riveted to the music his colleagues are playing.”
Through his Inspired playing and writing over the years and now on Stories, Tom Harrell has amazingly overcome his handicap. His music, like his story, is a triumph of the human spirit.