From the opening notes of Tom Harrell's latest High Note release Number Five you are catapulted into a break neck duet between the smooth as silk trumpeter and his equally cacophonous drummer Johnathan Blake. "Dizzy Gillespie's Blues N' Boogie" roars out of the gates of this fine album with a confident swagger and deliberate bravado. The tight interplay belies precision with just the right amount of extemporaneous spontaneity.
Harrell's beautiful "Right As Rain" takes a distinctively more gentle approach to win you over. On this sensitive ballad, the front line of Harrell on trumpet and Wayne Escoffery on tenor play a sleepily descending line, creating the aural effect of cascading water over smooth river rocks. Escoffery's tone is warm and compliments Harrell's equally burnished sound. Blake's cymbal work is subtly effective.
The title track is Harrell's "No. 5," a straight ahead swinger, is the first tune to feature the full quintet. Harrell's lead is both harmonically rich and tonally resplendent. Escoffery offers a flowing and fiery tenor solo that is as hot and unstoppable as liquid lava in motion. The song also features nice solos by pianist Danny Grissett, bassist Ugonna Okegwo and a stirring trap solo by Blake.
Perhaps the most beautiful piece on the album is Harrell's "Journey to the Stars," it is a simple repeating piano motif played lovingly by Grissett over which Harrell plays some gorgeous Flugelhorn explorations. The sparse treatment is extremely effective in creating poignancy, carrying you away to the stars of Harrell's musical mind.. Harrell overdubs a series of muted trumpet accompaniments that project a sense of majesty to the journey. Grissett offers an emotionally stirring solo demonstrating a tender touch.
It becomes obvious that Harrell's approach to music is all-encompassing with many unexpected twists and turns that keep you always on your feet. From the peaceful galactic travel of "Journey to the Stars" we step right into a free piece titled "GT," the longest piece of the album at almost nine minutes. Escoffery's tenor solo is the highlight with a blistering torrent of notes pouring from his horn in an uninterrupted flow of consciousness. Some nice spatial playing by Okegwo and Blake finish this barely structured piece.
Harrell is quite cognizant of the palette of colors he has available to him when creating his music. Here on his penetrating ballad "Present" he utilizes the warm tones of his Flugelhorn mixing nicely with Grissett's distinctively tinkling Fender Rhodes sound and Blake's wet cymbal work to create his images. The tight implicit interactions of this ensemble are the fruits of many hours of these musicians working closely together, clearly with Harrell's vision in mind, creating one of the most exciting and inventive ensembles in jazz today. As a friend of Mr. Harrell's on Facebook, I have seen he often posts pictures of his group as it tours the world. The obvious camaraderie that shows so well in his pictures is equally apparent in his music. This group genuinely enjoys playing together.
Daringly, Harrell interspersed this album with multiple instrument line ups. He offers duets between drums and trumpet or piano and trumpet, the trio format as well as the full quintet with the only unifying factor being Harrell's undeniable presence.
On "Star Eyes" Harrell goes it totally solo. With a lead in from "Night in Tunisa" there is no lack of creativity flowing from this man's horn as he negotiates the changes in his own unique way. His sense of time is exquisite, but it is his supreme sense of lyricism that is most impressive. "Star Eyes" is a standout solo performance of unfettered spontaneity and a lesson in how expressive unaccompanied trumpet can be.
The album finishes off with "Preludium" a study in how to change a six bar practice arrangement from Vincent Persichetti's book on "Harmony, Creative Aspects and Practice" into a thoughtful exploratory piece of music.
Harrell's haunting trumpet sound on "The Question" opens this probing piece of music. Grissett again marvels with his deft use of the Fender Rhodes, someone who is growing exponentially. Escoffery's tone is exceptionally warm and full.
"Melody in B Flat" is a hard swinging ensemble piece that once again features the entire quintet. Johnathan Blake's pulsing trap work drives this train, with Escoffery again playing some inspired tenor.
The album closes out almost introspectively with Harrell's solo, sotto voce version of Tadd Dameron's "A Bluetime." Enough said.
Make no mistake, despite some fine individual performances on the album, it is the leader Tom Harrell's vision that makes Number Five such a top-notch offering. The precise ensemble playing, his fine compositions, deft arrangements and his own imaginative playing, along with his ability to preserve spontaneity makes this one a must have for any serious jazz lover.
Here is a video of the Tom Harrell Quintet and their wonderful music.