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Tom Harrell Goes the Big-Band Route

Jazz Review

December 04, 1999|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There were a number of remarkable aspects about Tom Harrell's appearance at the Jazz Bakery Thursday night. But not necessarily the first that might come to mind.

Yes, it is remarkable that Harrell, 53, has become a world-class jazz trumpeter, fluegelhornist and composer despite having to deal with schizophrenia and the difficult side effects of its treatment for decades. This month, Down Beat magazine's readers elected him jazz trumpeter of the year.

But--without minimizing the day-in, day-out distress of living with schizophrenia--it was additionally impressive that, despite that distress, he has taken on a project that involves composing, arranging and leading a 17-piece orchestra. And his Thursday appearance, the first set in a four-night run at the Bakery, was dedicated to supporting the music from his new RCA/BMG album, "Times Mirror."

The unit assembled for the gig consisted of an A-team lineup of Southland musicians. To their credit, despite minimal rehearsal time, they gave a set of sterling performances, trekking through the adventurous twists and turns of Harrell's charts with surprising ease. The arrangements of "Autumn Leaves," "Dream" and Charlie Parker's "Chasin' the Bird," as well as Harrell's original compositions "Daily News" and "Shapes," were filled with enriched harmonies and disjunct lines, but they appeared to pose few problems for the players.

Harrell led the group in low-keyed fashion, counting off the tunes and occasionally conducting rubato passages. His fluegelhorn soloing was a characteristic blend of smooth-toned lyricism and fiery articulateness, and the other soloists--especially trombonist Mike Fahn, pianist Billy Childs, alto saxophonist Bob Sheppard and tenor saxophonist Ralph Moore--worked convincingly within the framework of the lush ensemble sounds.

Interestingly, and reflecting yet another remarkable aspect of the performance, many of the pieces were either arranged or composed decades ago. For example, "Chasin' the Bird" (which included a harmonized saxophone section rendering of a portion of Parker's solo from the original recording) was orchestrated in 1964; "Dream" dated to 1968; and "Times Mirror" was composed in 1993. Yet there was a consistency of style and manner stretching across the entire program of pieces, convincing evidence of the persistent survival powers of Harrell's extraordinary creativity.

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* The Tom Harrell Big Band at the Jazz Bakery through Sunday. 3233 Helms Ave., Culver City. (310) 271-9039. $25 admission tonight at 8 and 9:30, and $25 Sunday at 7 and 8:30 p.m.

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