“Jazz music is so universal that you can draw upon it; you can bring other cultural influences to jazz and it still remains jazz music.” – Tom Harrell
Renowned composer, arranger and trumpeter Tom Harrell has sustained an impressive career that has spanned well over 40 years. He won numerous awards and grants, including Trumpeter of the Year and a Grammy nomination. He is a graduate of Stanford University. A true artist whose broad creativity has taken him around the world, Tom Harrell has worked with some of the world’s best artists spanning multiple genres. His musical intellect is only buoyed by his sense of responsibility to his listeners. In this interview, we discuss various topics including his thoughts about composition and improvisation.
iRJ: What inspired you to start playing music?
TH: I heard music in our house via records and radio from the time I was born. I was exposed to really great music in our house. So, I had a natural love for music and I still do.
iRJ: Would you say that you have a broad appreciation for music, or was it specifically Jazz that did it for you?
TH: We had mostly Jazz music on the radio and on the record player. As you know, I was born in 1946, so I was in Illinois from 1946-1952 and then we moved to California in 1952. At that time, Jazz was popular music. I mean it still is, but at that time it was big bands on the radio, so I was exposed. My parents had Louis Armstrong, Hot Five, Hot Seven and Duke Ellington, so I was exposed to that very early. We would travel as well. There was also European classical music too. When we went to my grandparents house in California and they had Enrico Caruso on 12’ and Verde operas. When we were in Illinois, my parents would take me to the opera in St. Louis on Saturday nights. That was an outdoor opera. So, I was exposed to opera at an early age as well.
iRJ: Wow, that is very, very broad. That would explain your diversity as a musician as well. It is interesting to see that. Your group has been together for a number of years, which is very rare these days. How does that help you as musician as far as playing and composing?
TH: I think it’s a very good situation. You can write for the individuals and right away you can think of Duke Ellington. He had a group where he could write for the individuals involved. So, we’ve had this working group for a long time. So, we know each other. Not only can I write for the individuals, but they interact and we can anticipate each other’s responses. They help bring the music to life. Sometimes you write something and it might be sketchy, but I know how they will react. And I try to bring out what I like about their playing. They are very individual players and very innovative.
iRJ: You’ve been around for a while. You’ve worked with everyone from Vincent Guaraldi to Carlos Santana. How have you evolved as an artist over the years?
TH: I think more and more about global music. I think more and more in terms of how the music can help the world. I’m trying to create music that everyone can listen to. Basically, it’s music for the world. I think Coltrane was oriented towards that too. When he recorded “My Favorite Things”, it was a statement to the world that this was what he loved about music, the world and the life. As he said in an interview, he was trying to express all the wonderful things in the universe.
iRJ: Would you say on many levels you were inspired by the world around you? Is that where you gather a lot of your inspiration?
TH: Yeah! The more you travel, it gives you a different perspective. I am lucky to be able to travel to different countries and different regions. And by doing so, you will get a broader perspective. From the musicians and artists in Paris, a lot of people from America went there in the beginning of the 20th century. You gather a view of what the American experience is by going to other countries because you see it in a different light. I mean, I’m from America, but now I am starting to see it in relation to the rest of the globe and how the music relates to other cultures. There is a lot of beauty in other cultures. Jazz music is so universal that you can draw upon it; you can bring other cultural influences to jazz and it still remains Jazz music.
iRJ: Is there a place in the world that you’ve enjoyed playing the most?
TH: I enjoy playing wherever people respond with their hearts. This includes America, but I found Italy and Spain to be nice places to play too.
iRJ: What is it about Italy that you like so much?
TH: They respond with their hearts. A lot of the melodic traditions of music have evolved from Italy. The opera is very influential in how we hear melody. The first opera came from Italy. I mean, the whole idea of “romance” or “romantic music” comes from Latin cultures.
iRJ: Musical composition is the height of musicianship. You have composed a lot in your career. What is your inspiration behind composing music?
TH: Well ,I think improvisation and composition is basically the same thing.
iRJ: Are there any subtleties that make them different?
TH: Well, as you know, improvisation is done on the spur of the moment, whereas with composition you have the option of editing. But when you record you can edit too. So, improvisation can be edited in the same way you would make a film.
iRJ: I’ve asked this of several artists: When you hear music mentally, is it more of a picture you’re trying paint or is it just notes? I’ve heard some artists say when they are trying to compose it is like a painting in their minds. How do you do that?
TH: Music is very visual. I think of it like a painting too. The main thing I think is that it’s a feeling you’re trying to convey. And you can convey feeling through painting, as well as through music. Many artists and musicians are also visual artists as you know. Duke Ellington and Miles Davis were into the visual world very much. And life experiences can play a role too. Duke Ellington would write songs based on life experiences. I think it’s good to be autobiographical. If you can relate your life experience to what you are doing, then it becomes very meaningful. You try to relate everything you create musically to your life.
iRJ: Do you do that with a lot of your music?
TH: Well, yes! I think of life situations and that’s how I come up with titles when I try to relate it to life. And sometimes you think of the musical ideas which suggest words. The melodies have the feeling of speech patterns. I think music should always be related to speech patterns. It should always sound natural and flowing. I mean hopefully! I really think music should be natural and relaxed. That is what is so great about Jazz music. The essence of it is relaxation as well as energy. It is a balance between intensity and relaxation.
iRJ: Is there a certain degree of control in there?
TH: Well, yes! There are certain rules to music. We play on changes. A lot of the time in hard bop you play on changes. In freedom, music sometimes you play more abstractly, but you still try to relate it to the melody.
iRJ: In your opinion, do you prefer to compose or perform?
TH: When I am performing, I am also composing. So, I am improvising. But, I do love to compose, but sometimes that can be a lonely existence. I like the camaraderie of performing. It’s nice to be with people. I think they go together because it’s like having a party. Every time you play, it’s sort of like a party. When you compose it’s like preparing for a party. You’re creating certain structures. Art Blakey and Horace Silver saw the need for structure because sometimes when you get into a jam session format, sometimes there is a need. You might want to bring in originals or new changes. It’s good that everyone knows the same songs, but sometimes you want to play new changes or arrangements on standards. A small group, quintet or quartet can be like a big band. That’s the great thing about big bands; the arrangements create a lot of interest.
iRJ: Let’s talk about some of the stuff you are working on right now. I see you have a new album out since May. Tell us a little bit about that album and what it means to you.
TH: It’s a very nice album. It’s a departure from what we’ve been doing. But, it is still an affirmation of what we do. We tried different things. We added different configurations of the group; sort of like a chamber concept. We had solos, duets, trios, quartets and quintets. We also did a free piece. There were some duets. It feels good.
iRJ: Have you found that it is generating a reception or something you never expected?
TH: It seems to be generating a lot of interest. It’s nice to do a solo project. People have been saying they have heard the music on the radio. And that is very exciting. I like to do acapella things. So, it is very fulfilling that people are interested.
iRJ: The other project I’d like to discuss is the “Jazz Meets Classical – Debussy and Revel” with impressionist music by French composers that draws a parallel with Jazz.
TH: I’ve always been attracted to French music. My teacher, Russell Garcia, made me aware of the relationship of Debussy and Ravel to Jazz music. The more I studied, I realized Debussy and Duke Ellington and are related. There is actually no boundary between Classical and Jazz music. That’s what Charlie Parker said. There is no boundary line to art. That’s where I am coming from. I think it’s good to think of all music as one thing. And French music has really influenced Jazz. Jazz evolved in New Orleans, so that’s French culture right there. The Creole influence is there. America has always been linked with France. Lafayette and the beginning of the American Revolution; there was a very close tie-in with France.
iRJ: When you look at a project like that, it is tremendously ambitious. You’ve made some excellent points. What is the goal of making such a comparison? What do you hope the outcome of that project is?
TH: The main thing is that it is very fresh. We’re trying to do something different. It shows that Debussy and Ravel are very influenced by Jazz. And it’s a reciprocal influence. So, I guess the main goal is to promote world unity.
iRJ: You worked and recorded with so many great artists. Is there someone you’ve never worked with that you’d like to?
TH: I’ll keep that a secret because there are many great musicians! [Laughter] There are many great musicians. And many of them are under exposed or even unknown to the world. But, this is a good time to mention this. I think it’s good to be aware there is a tremendous amount of creativity in the world right now. A lot of people are deserving of recognition that are totally unknown, or maybe they will become known. I think it’s good to keep in mind that there are a lot of people that deserve more recognition.
iRJ: Of your contemporaries, who inspires you the most?
TH: I would say primarily saxophone players. As a trumpet player, I am sort of drawn to the saxophone as an inspiration. From Charlie Parker to John Coltrane, I have been very fortunate to play with some great saxophone players right now. Charles McPherson and Lee Konitz come to mind. And one afternoon, I got to play with Ornette Coleman. I also love Sonny Rollins. I think for a horn player, I think the saxophone is the driving force.
iRJ: Jazz has undergone so much change and evolution. In your opinion, where is Jazz today and where is it going?
TH: People are still innovating and that’s great. I think it’s very healthy. There are a lot of great players. Everyone is really aware there is a lot of beautiful change happening in the music. It keeps getting better and better. There are really strong players now and I think it’s very healthy. I think it’s going more towards a global communication. You hear people all over the world playing Jazz music bringing new energy. They can be true to their culture and be true to their roots. I think that’s what is great. You can affirm your roots and still find extensions of your traditions.
by Mark A. Moore