In playing music, there are two paths that soloists can take to make a statement. On the one hand, there is the style of playing fast and extended passages, displaying sheer technical virtuosity and the joy of playing. In jazz, this style is found in the lightning-quick playing of bop players such as Charlie Parker and John Coltrane (in his mid-’50s “sheets of sound” period).
The other school of playing favors a lyrical, emotive style that involves playing fewer notes to maximum effect. The best players in this style, such as Miles Davis and Carlos Santana, have a gift for saying more with less. While Tom Harrell is certainly a technically proficient player, his performance on Saturday in Chapin identifies him as a student of the latter school. Performing with his Quintet, Harrell proved to be a talented and responsive player before the respectably large crowd.
Tom Harrell is one of the unique personalities in jazz, largely because he suffers from symptoms of schizophrenia. As the program notes said, “Music is Harrell’s Rock of Gibraltar that allows him to cope with the illness.” On stage, Harrell stood silently hunched over his music stand, intently listening to the sounds created by his group. He hardly moved, except to bop his head slightly during particularly spirited moments of the improvisation. Dressed in a black leather jacket, Harrell never looked up at the audience or the band.
Of course, there is no requirement in jazz music for the performer to be an entertainer of the audience; Miles Davis, for instance, was known to turn his back on the audience and play to his band when he felt the crowd didn’t “get it.” Many of the compositions played by Harrell and his group were based on simple riffs, vaguely reminiscent of the sketched compositional quality of Davis’s Kind of Blue, leaving a maximum of open space for improvisation. This is not to say, however, that Harrell’s group only had one “sound;” indeed, there was a great variety of tempo, rhythm and feel between the songs.
In any case, Harrell’s silence allowed the audience to focus on the stunning interplay of his group – Freddie Bryant (guitar), Xavier Davis (piano), Ugonna Okegwo (bass) and Leon Parker (drums). It was in these open group spaces that the Quintet showed its greatest strength: that elusive jazz quality of listening.
Harrell played in a lyrical style with well-placed notes and carefully constructed melodies. His solos were never dull or uninteresting, and they gained intensity through the attentiveness of the rhythm section – a drum fill here, a guitar lick there, and the gradual build in the intensity of the background playing. Every member of the band had plenty of room for expertly played individual solos, but the extreme responsiveness of their playing was perhaps even more impressive. Through this interplay, the group was able to take the compositions through a wide range of feeling and character, even changing the rhythmic base of the song, yet still managing to end square on the head at the song’s end.
Harrell played just one lengthy set, and mostly kept the audience’s attention. Though stunning, Harrell did not set out to entertain by performance shtick or musical hook. It was, in this sense, a pure form of jazz, uncompromising and richer for the musical risks it took. From the lengthy standing ovation he received, it seems as though the talents of the Tom Harrell Quintet did not go unnoticed by the Williamstown community.