Recording of January 2004: Wise Children

TOM HARRELL: Wise Children
Tom Harrell, trumpet, flugelhorn, balafon; Jimmy Greene, tenor sax, flute; Xavier Davis, piano, Fender Rhodes, clavinet, kalimba, organ, synth bass; Ugonna Okegwo, acoustic bass, electric bass; Quincy Davis, drums
With: Cenovia Cummins, Antoine Silverman, violin; Juliet Haffner, viola; Daniel Miller, Jeffrey Szabo, cello; Mondre Moffett, Kamau Adilifu, trumpet; Luis Bonilla, trombone; Douglas Purviance, bass trombone; John Clark, Vincent Chancey, French horn; Howard Johnson, tuba; Myron Walden, alto sax; David Schumacher, baritone sax; Gil Goldstein, accordion; Marvin Sewell, electric guitar; Marcel Carmago, acoustic guitar; Reuben Rodgers, fretless bass; Milton Cardona, congas; Joe Gonzalez, bongos; Café, congas, berimbau, balafon, oudu, tambourine, percussion; Claudia Acuña, Jane Monheit, Dianne Reeves, Cassandra Wilson, vocals
Bluebird 82876-53016-2 (CD). 2003. John Snyder, prod.; Joe Ferla, eng. DAD. TT: 63:34
Performance ****
Sonics ****

It is a cliché, but unavoidable: A new album by Tom Harrell is an important event. This is true because he records less than once a year, because (especially since his move to the Bluebird/RCA label in 1996) every one of his recording projects has its own aesthetic purpose and identity, and mostly because he is one of the three or four greatest trumpet players in the world.

Wise Children is founded on Harrell's regular working quintet (Jimmy Greene on reeds, brothers Xavier and Quincy Davis on piano and drums respectively, Ugonna Okegwo on bass), supplemented by strings and a large variety of horns and African and Caribbean percussion instruments. These additional resources provide fresh colors and textures and details for a program of Harrell's own compositions. He has recorded with large ensembles before (Time's Mirror, from 1999, and Paradise, from 2001, are recent examples), but he has never made an album like Wise Children. It is more eclectic, drawing on Brazilian and Afro-Cuban and European classical sources, and in parts more groove-based, than anything Harrell has ever done. And on four tracks he uses four different popular jazz vocalists—the first time in his solo career that he has recorded with singers.

Given its stylistic diversity and its track-to-track variation in instrumentation, Wise Children could have sounded like a sampler. It is, in fact, a single elaborate tapestry. It opens surprisingly, with tango strains from Gil Goldstein's accordion and percolating percussion. Then violins take over the melody of "Paz," before brass instruments (trombone, bass trombone, French horns) claim it for themselves. The strings and horns take turns refining the theme, sometimes overlapping in rich densities, all the while succumbing to the headlong pulse of three drummers. It is a riveting moment when Harrell's trumpet enters, as if all those shifting instrumental layers were simply to prepare for his arrival. His solo is high individual drama, driven by the intensifying actions of the full ensemble.

"Paz" is a strong start, from which the album climbs to four separate summits—the vocal tracks. Each unusual song-poem has music by Harrell and words by either Kami Lyle or Lisa Michel. Dianne Reeves powerfully portrays the latter-day romance "Straight to My Heart." "Radiant Moon," with Claudia Acuña, is very different, a throbbing incantation with exciting solos from Jimmy Greene and Xavier Davis, and with Acuña and Harrell intertwining at the end. And Cassandra Wilson's dark fluency provides weight and authenticity for the ephemeral "Leaves."

It might surprise some people that singer Jane Monheit can hold her own in such company. In fact, other than Harrell's trumpet and flugelhorn, the most mesmerizing and affecting voice on Wise Children is Monheit's. Her gorgeous instrument lingers over the lyrics of "Snow" like aching sighs of the soul.

Some tracks are less than indispensable. There are other players who can do plugged-in funk like "See You at Seven" and "What Will They Think of Next" (and the latter, at almost 10 minutes, is too long). But most of this music could have come only from Tom Harrell. The four vocal pieces, as well as "Kalimba" and "Paz" and the concluding, title track, reveal a melodicism that he owns, as well as his special touch in arranging diverse elements into flowing, evolving forms. His writing for strings exploits their sonorities in ways that are new in a jazz context.

And Harrell's arrangements are complementary, provocative surroundings for one of the most compelling soloists in jazz—himself. With the first notes from his horn, whether flares and flurries, or long tones hung in the air, whether for energetic pieces like "Paz" or for rapt meditations of memory like the title track, everything simply stops—not in terms of the music's progress, but in the way that Harrell's instrumental voice lays complete claim to the listener's imagination. Tom Harrell plays lines that enlighten and hurt and fulfill with their beauty and truth.

The artistic success of Wise Children is inseparable from the engineering achievement of Joe Ferla. Albums that constantly change personnel and instrumental configurations are often recorded in stages and sections, the horn players never meeting the violinists. But Ferla recorded this album live, in eight sessions over three days. The microphone plot and floor plan alone must have been interesting challenges. The outcome is a presentation somewhat less aggressive and up-front than Ferla's work for Harrell's previous album with large ensemble, Paradise. But the full range of sonic complexities that constitutes Wise Children is believably available, on a wide, detailed, integrated soundstage.—Thomas Conrad