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Electrifying Musicianship From Harrell


Watching trumpeter-fluegelhornist Tom Harrell can be disconcerting. But hearing him play is a beautifully moving matter.

There were times during his opening set Tuesday at Catalina Bar & Grill when Harrell, who has spoken frankly about his struggle with schizophrenia, appeared to be uncomfortable or disengaged as he shuffled back and forth from the bandstand or stood, head bowed, listening to the other members of his quintet perform.

Yet in front of the microphone he was anything but disengaged. His improvisations were taunt, seamless affairs filled with one revealing line after another. He took chances modifying tone and extending range. He played with an overall poignancy that was only heightened by knowledge of his personal struggle.

The close-to-capacity crowd, sprinkled with trumpeters ranging from Bobby Shew to Herb Alpert, found nothing disconcerting, receiving each effort with shouts and strong applause. The ovations were justly deserved.

Comparisons to Miles Davis, who exuded confidence both on and off the stage, may seem inappropriate. But there were moments during the performance that brought the late trumpeter to mind as Harrell, playing fluegelhorn almost exclusively, strung together a series of smeared tones or suddenly turned from edgy, off-beat phrases to captivating lyricism.


Harrell's compositions also impressed. The up-tempo numbers had roots in bebop, but were colored with unusual harmonics and free jazz sensibilities. Themes turned on sudden shifts of mood or sharp exclamations from the horns.

"Cheetah," pulled from Harrell's recent recording "Labyrinth," was the most involved, with its unsettled, roiling exchange between pianist Donald Brown and bassist David Ephross. Harrell's solo, played against drummer Billy Hart's simply tapped rhythms, pushed the edge of accessibility before closing stunningly on melodic, blues-flavored lines.

Saxophonist Don Braden proved an integral component, blending with Harrell on themes then exposing his own wily personality during improvisations.

Harrell's most revealing play came on the ballad "Everything Happens to Me." He worked with an airy reserve, occasionally blowing only breath through the horn while massaging sustained notes with a wide vibrato. His moving presentation left a singular impression: Tom Harrell is a man best understood through his music.

* The Tom Harrell Quintet plays Catalina Bar & Grill, 1640 N. Cahuenga Blvd., tonight through Sunday, 8:30 and 10:30 p.m. (213) 466-2210.

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