Deep Listening: Tom Harrell Takes a Latin Holiday

As one of the top trumpeters in jazz for the past two decades and one of the music’s most prolific and gifted composers, Tom Harrell is a serious student of the way things sound. “Like I notice,” he says, “when I’m talking, it sounds like I’m using multiphonics.” I think I know what he means. A skilled saxophonist can blow two notes at once, but it makes a weird, almost disembodied sound, which is why horn multiphonics are a staple of avant-garde jazz. Mr. Harrell, who has a deep baritone speaking voice that jumps up to a pinched falsetto when he gets flustered, can sound similarly otherworldly. “I started reminding myself of a tuba,” he said. “A tuba can sound like it is playing multiphonics even when it’s playing a root note.” It’s not surprising that Mr. Harrell, with his exquisite sense of pitch and timbre and his schizophrenia, which was diagnosed back in the late 60’s, should pay attention to the way he sounds.

Most everyone who knows Mr. Harrell says he is one of the smartest and nicest men on the planet. For those who don’t know him, he can make an unusual impression. The trumpeter and his septet play the Village Vanguard March 3 to March 8 in support of a new album, Art of Rhythm (RCA Victor), and it was at the Vanguard that I first heard him about six years ago. Saxophonist Joe Lovano’s quintet was about to launch into its first tune, and I assumed the stooped, gangly trumpeter was having some kind of drug-induced seizure, the Vanguard crowd being simply too hip to react. I wasn’t altogether wrong. The powerful meds Mr. Harrell takes to control his schizophrenia can produce uncontrollable tics and spasms, a humiliating affliction that disappears when he puts trumpet or flugelhorn to his lips.

At 51, Tom Harrell has been putting out first-rate jazz albums since Wynton Marsalis was in short pants. Only in a world as hermetic as jazz could a trumpeter top the fan polls since the late 70’s, cut as remarkable a figure and still be unknown to the general public. Timing is partly to blame. Mr. Harrell is too young to qualify as a bop legend and too old and too strange to join the debonair reboppers of the 80’s. He has an aptitude for invisibility. While Mr. Harrell’s trumpet work radiates intelligence, his chops are not virtuosic and, as a look at his bruised, pulpy lips would suggest, not always in perfect working order. He thinks as a composer first and, always in the service of the tune, he’s in the habit of giving the juiciest parts to the saxophonists.

At last summer’s Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, Italy, the crowd was buzzing about the two-tenor sax duel he staged between band mates Don Braden, the biggest voice on the trumpeter’s 1996 major label debut, Labyrinth (RCA Victor), and newcomer Gregory Tardy, featured on Art of Rhythm , whom Mr. Harrell discovered in the West Village, practicing in the back room at Smalls. They traded riffs, shrieked, moaned and hollered. Meanwhile, Mr. Harrell stayed inside a nimbus of intense concentration, his veins popping as he went for notes sometimes just out of reach. Still, the musical lines were mostly even-tempered, even lyrical. For all the facile theories that have been aired about the relationship between creativity and emotional disorder, the fact is, Mr. Harrell is an exceedingly logical and orderly improviser.

Spending an afternoon with Mr. Harrell in his Washington Heights apartment, I get the second shock of our brief association. As advertised, he is a sweet and gentle man, but when the mood and the subject are right, he is one of the great talkers in jazz. And while no one of his generation has had a more thorough grounding in the fundamentals of bop-apprenticeships with the Woody Herman’s big band and pianist Horace Silver in the 70’s, working with altoist Phil Woods in the 80’s-what really gets him going are the Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Brazilian rhythms that dominate Art of Rhythm .

“I guess we’re born more than once,” he said. “I mean, we’re born every time we find something new. And a melody takes on new meaning when you combine it with a new rhythm. People are drawn to Latin music because rhythm seems to be the most fertile ground for exploration.” He tapped out a series of beats on the table to show how the gears can mesh. “Even in medium swing,” he said, “there’s an implied 6/8 feel that combines with a Latin 6/8 feel.”

Fashion drives some American jazz musicians to chase the latest beat. But Mr. Harrell is untainted by any patronizing notion that people of color got rhythm and clever, clumsy European-Americans can profitably appropriate it. “Europeans can have a groove,” he said. “Bach has a groove. And Bach was very influenced by Spanish music, so there’s a connection [with Latin American rhythms], too. And Western European music was very influenced by Eastern European music, which had a gypsy element, which is influenced by Hindi music-the use of microtones and the rhythmic use of five and seven.”

Mr. Harrell talks the way he plays, making deft, logical connections. In his musical universe, no melody or rhythm is more than two degrees of separation removed, and he sets about proving it in Art of Rhythm . It’s a musical garden party-24 players, three different rhythm sections-where strings, brass and woodwinds commingle with Latin and Brazilian musics and the blues. On new Harrell tunes like “Doo Bop” and “Recitation,” the trumpeter, Mr. Tardy, and tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman, get in some assertive jazz licks, but to my ears, the album’s lead muse hails from Brazil. There’s an easiness and sensuality to the Art of Rhythm melodies that to the Brazilian ear probably sounds like life itself, but, paradoxically, may cause trouble for some American jazz fans. We’ve been raised on oversize expectations created by Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. Any music that’s not aimed at Olympus seems slightly suspect.

But Mr. Harrell listens more deeply than we do. Greg Tardy has said that when he and Mr. Harrell share a cab, sometimes he’ll notice the trumpeter weeping because he’s been moved by something he’s heard in a pop song playing on the radio. For most of us, aging is the struggle to feel anything as intensely as we did when we were young. For better and worse, Mr. Harrell seems incapable of forming an emotional callus. Mention a personal misfortune and he’ll cry, not you. Prompt him into a musicological excursus on the hidden Latin and Jewish roots of New York bebop, and the delighted expression on his face could belong to a child at his own surprise party.

For Mr. Harrell, music can never merely be pretty or well crafted. At least since the Coltrane era, it’s become unremarkable for musicians to link music and spirituality. But for Mr. Harrell, you know that the connection is as serious as schizophrenia.

“The music can teach you a lot about how to deal with ego,” he said. At a therapeutic level, he added, the music “has a healing effect with the emotional problem. The music showed me I could trust my intuition, that there was an inner voice that I could listen to and that has helped me make decisions in life.”

Tom Harrell spends most of his waking hours writing and playing music. In my newfound Oliver Sacks mode, I ask him if this immersion helps to organize his thinking in a more fundamental way than it would for a “normal” musician. Without rancor or discomfort, he offers the self-evident truth that his mind, unusual as it may be, is all he can ever know.

“I’ll never know what another individual is experiencing on an empirical level,” he said. “But I always try to work on my concentration. And it is very hard to let go sometimes of the worries that I have. I have trouble forgiving myself for the mistakes I’ve made in the past. But there again, music is the teacher. You feel like you’re redeeming yourself when you play or write.”

Deep Listening: Tom Harrell Takes a Latin Holiday