Review: Harrell’s magic brings gasps

There were two distinct parts to trumpeter Tom Harrell’s exceptional concert at the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival Friday night: the first half was merely very good, then the magic happened.

Tom Harrell Quintet with strings

NAC Studio
Reviewed: Friday, 7 p.m.

There were two distinct parts to trumpeter Tom Harrell’s exceptional concert at the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival Friday night: the first half was merely very good, then the magic happened.

Five tunes into a rare encounter between his regular quintet and a five-member string quartet led by Ottawa cellist Julian Armour, the music moved to a higher plane, a place where the 10 musicians became fully involved in Harrell’s exquisite compositions and arrangements.

That tune, suitably enough, was Sail Away, one of the trumpeter’s classics, a composition full of optimism and buoyancy yet with a slight tug melancholy in case a listener gets too carried away with life’s possibilities.

It’s an honest sentiment coming from Harrell, who turned 67 last week and has a well-documented history of battling mental illness. Heavily medicated to cope with life, he stands, head bowed and framed with a shock of white hair, until he brings his flugelhorn or trumpet to his mouth.

What happens then is magnificent. Harrell is revered by musicians and fans, but not for playing fast or loud or high. Instead, he fashions gorgeous aural shapes and elegant phrases with a tone of immense depth and gentleness.

Time after time on Friday, his playing brought gasps from among the packed room, starting with his lengthy solo on Sail Away, which was soaring and sweet and sublime.

The tune kicked off a string of performances that made full use of the strings, especially the gently galloping Baroque Steps, which included a swooping solo from tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, and the deeply romantic Nighttime, which ended with a flugelhorn solo full of audacious pauses, masterful construction and blissful blues.

Harrell’s current quintet, together since 2006, operates with the calm emotional authority that comes with experience and, almost certainly, the exposure to a musician of Harrell’s calibre.

Harrell has experimented with strings in the past, most notably on 2001 Paradise and his experiment with the music of Debussy in 2011. Unlike a lot of jazz musicians who use strings around the edges of their compositions, Harrell moves beyond flourishes and embeds the classical-inspired elements deeply into his music.

True to form, the strings provided Friday’s concert with some lovely moments, and it was clear the players, a bit tight at the beginning, eventually relaxed into their roles, standing after the finale to join the audience as it showered emotional applause onto Harrell’s slumping shoulders.

It was a exceptional moment of love for a exceptional musician.

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