An accomplished performing unit of master musicians, the current edition of Tom Harrell’s quintet is making the most of the leader’s compositions in lengthy (80 minute) sets this week at the Jazz Bakery. Harrell, a schizophrenic, continues to be disarming to watch as his body goes limp and hangs still when he’s not playing. Once he brings the trumpet or, especially, the flugelhorn to his mouth, however, there’s a unique expressiveness and warmth on display.
Harrell uses the edge of late 1950s hard bop as a springboard, trimming the rhythmic edge and favoring a swinging drive that originates in the bass of Ugonna Okeegwo. Harrell’s approach to hard bop, the ferocious idiom pioneered by drummer Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers, is neither reinterpretation nor tribute; he focuses on the “what ifs” of early 1960s jazz styles, playing with brisk tunefulness, funk and winding compositions.
To a great extent, the timbre and meter stay the same from song to song and head-solo-head structure rarely deviates from a soloing order of trumpet-sax-piano-bass. That owes largely to his nuanced compositional statements: Harrell suggests that when jazz splintered after hard bop’s run — the period included free jazz, electric bands, boogaloo and bossa nova — it could have retained the integrity of the origins of swing and bebop while adding modern elements. Whereas far too many trumpet players hold up Miles Davis as the ultimate ideal, Harrell appears to be getting cues from the late Woody Shaw’s adventurous yet melodic work for Columbia in the 1970s.
While Harrell does not communicate with the band during the set — he grunts the tempo before each number — his mates have exquisite communication skills. Tenor sax ace Jimmy Greene plays a balanced opening segment in tandem with Harrell and then solos, as all of them do, with economy. That they played together on Harrell’s latest RCA/Bluebird disc “Wise Children,” along with an overflow of guest instrumentalists and singers, certainly assists them in this regard. The precision of the band is as important as the sumptuous tone Harrell gets out of the flugelhorn, which can’t be beat.