For several decades, trumpeter and fluegelhornist Tom Harrell has been revered among jazz fans. But two new projects this season promise to expand his constituency.
Mr. Harrell, who is 69, recently released “First Impressions: Debussy and Ravel Project” (HighNote), a recording with much of the repertoire drawn from the work of those classical composers. In addition, he and an edition of his quintet featuring saxophonist Ralph Moore, pianist David Virelles, drummer Adam Cruz and bassist Ugonna Okegwo will be providing the live accompaniment to the world premiere of choreographer Michele Wiles’s “Apogee in 3,” which will be presented Nov. 3 through 7 by her BalletNext troupe at New York Live Arts.
The trumpeter created the band heard on “First Impressions” in 2010, and it debuted at the Blue Note Jazz Festival the following year. Originally the Tom Harrell Chamber Ensemble, it’s now called Tom Harrell First Impressions. He augmented his superb, longstanding quintet—saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, pianist Danny Grissett, Mr. Okegweo and drummer Johnathan Blake—with flutist Charles Pillow, guitarist Rale Micic, violinist Meg Okura and cellist Rubin Kodheli, each a player well versed in both jazz and classical music.
Mr. Harrell has one of the most distinctive sounds in jazz. He avoids the flamboyant techniques that are most trumpeters’ stock in trade, and on fluegelhorn he doesn’t engage in the watercolor-toned smears commonly heard. Instead, he employs clean and direct tone to the rhythmic nuances and subtle harmonies in his music. It’s a style well suited for this project. His solos wend their way through the complex array of harmonies rather than soar above them, giving the listener a solid sense of the ensemble’s unity in this music.
Mr. Harrell, a first-rate arranger, began his career in the mid-1960s with some of the top progressive big bands and has lead several large ensembles of his own; those skills are on display in “First Impressions.” Far too many hybrids of jazz and classical music falter by being a dialogue between the genres rather than a synthesis; Mr. Harrell’s band is a large jazz ensemble performing repertoire largely drawn from French Impressionist composers. The opening track on the disc, Ravel’s “Sainte,” offers harmonies involving both stringed instruments and horns. The second, Ravel’s “Voices,” creates an arch counterpoint between the drums and strings, which segues into a puckish solo by the leader. There are four Debussy pieces on the recording, and the highlight, “Passepied,” is a winding composition featuring stellar work by Messrs. Kodheli, Escoffery and Blake and Ms. Okura. At the Village Vanguard earlier this month, First Impressions enlarged both the classical repertoire and some music written by Mr. Harrell; the solos were longer and more intense, and the group played with the confidence of a veteran band.
Born in Urbana, Ill., and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Mr. Harrell graduated from Stanford in 1969. After working both in big bands and the Horace Silver Quintet, he played a prominent role in the ’80s small groups led by saxophonist Phil Woods. His cool, serene style offering a vivid and effective contrast to that leader’s aggressive approach. Since the late ’80s he has led bands of varying sizes; but during the past decade or so, his quintet has become his signature ensemble, offering superb renditions of both jazz classics and Mr. Harrell’s stellar work.
Ms. Wiles, founder and artistic director of BalletNext approached Mr. Harrell this spring after attending a show of his at the Village Vanguard; she was inspired by the elegance and range of the band to pursue a collaboration. Just as composers like Ravel and Debussy have been interests of Mr. Harrell’s for decades, so too has dance. When he speaks about music, he often discusses the dance possible from its rhythms. Ms. Wiles, 35, was a soloist and then a principal at American Ballet Theatre before leaving in 2011 to launch her own company, which seeks to expand the range of contemporary ballet.
Her company will dance to two Harrell originals, “Baroque Steps” and “Trances,” and there will be one interlude where Mr. Harrell and Ms. Wiles engage in an improvised collaboration—at a rehearsal earlier this month, Ms. Wiles’s troupe made performing en pointe to jazz seem perfectly natural. Although they are of different generations, the jazzman and choreographer appear to be kindred spirits, both pushing their art into fertile new territory.
Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.