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Chris Wong talks to Tom Harrell

by Chris Wong

The following appeared in the Vancouver Courier on January 28, 2004, a couple of days prior to Harrell's appearance at The Cellar.

Tom Harrell at The Cellar, January 30, 2004.
Photo by Brian Nation

According to Tom Harrell’s vision, music is all about creating beauty. The jazz trumpeter, flugelhorn player and composer excels at doing exactly that. He writes songs with vivid harmonic colours, plays his lyrical melodies with a heavenly tone and bathes his solos in radiant sounds.

While Harrell’s music exudes beauty, his life has hardly been idyllic. Harrell suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, a severe mental illness that causes him to hear voices. Taking strong medication controls the schizophrenia and enables him to function as a creative artist. But considering his ongoing battle with the illness, his expressions of beauty are nothing less than extraordinary.

“Sometimes it’s very hard to find, because there are other things in the world other than beauty,” says Harrell, on the phone from Los Angeles. “Like yin and yang, there’s a basic duality to all existence. So I try to go for the part that’s pretty—the flowing, organic part of life.”

Harrell grew up in California and got his start in jazz by playing with big bands led by Stan Kenton and Woody Herman. Long stints with major figures like Horace Silver and Phil Woods prepared Harrell for his career as a leader, which has flourished, especially since getting a major label deal with RCA/Bluebird (the same label that fellow trumpeter Dave Douglas records for).

Wise Children, Harrell’s latest album, features his cohesive quintet, including keyboardist Xavier Davis, tenor saxophonist/flutist Jimmy Greene, bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Quincy Davis. Harrell will perform with Okegwo and Quincy Davis Jan. 30-31 at the Cellar.

A number of other musicians, on instruments ranging from cello and French horn to berimbau (Afro-Brazilian one-stringed instrument) and balafon (West African xylophone), also contribute to the deeply satisfying Wise Children. As well, premier female jazz vocalists Cassandra Wilson, Dianne Reeves, Claudia Acuńa and Jane Monheit each sing on a track.

As Wise Children and previous releases demonstrate, Harrell enjoys writing for both small and large ensembles. “To me in a way it’s sort of like the difference between sketching in pencil and maybe doing a watercolour. When you go from the pencil sketch to the watercolour or even oil painting, it makes it more interesting sometimes for the listener and for the musicians and singers too. They respond to new colours.” (Even though it will be a trio setting, Harrell says he’ll do tunes from Wise Children at the Cellar.)

Wise Children also shows that Harrell can adeptly go beyond straight ahead jazz to explore Latin music, funk, and other styles. “There’s a very precious tradition of jazz and Latin music, and all the world music traditions are very precious and they should definitely be preserved. But it’s also our responsibility as creative musicians to try to extend from the traditions in a valid way, and I think that’s possible.”

Harrell plays his horns and composes daily. “I have incredible opportunities now, so I have an obligation to kind of work all the time, as much as I can. At the same time, I don’t want it to be a mechanical process. I don’t want to do anything dishonest in music.”

Whether he’s practicing, recording or performing live, he sees the craft of playing trumpet in spiritual terms. “Trumpet playing in a way is a form of meditating. In Tibet the Tibetan monks would point the bone trumpets toward the earth, and that was how they would meditate and find unity with the creator.”

Harrell also thinks music is therapeutic. “I think it would be all right for musicians to play all day long, all night long, because the music puts out a positive vibration. It’s healing energy. Music is one of the healing professions to me. Music is health care. Musicians are health care practitioners, the same as a medical doctor or acupuncturist.”

Music has certainly been healing for Harrell. “It’s always healing for me. Music is the main thing that keeps me going,” he says, referring to his difficult experience with schizophrenia. The illness has also positively affected his music in certain ways. “It did teach me a little about alienation as I was growing up,” says the 57-year-old. “Maybe it was a blessing because by isolating myself, I managed to work more on music.”

Given the kudos from critics and admiration from musicians he increasingly receives, is Harrell feeling good about where he is in his career? “I don’t want to be in a position where I’m saying to myself, ‘This is it. I finally did it. Now I can rest, now I can lay back, now I don’t have to do anything anymore because I did everything already.’ For me, it’s always going forward.”