Tom Harrell always has been a singular voice on trumpet, a fervently lyrical player with an uncommonly sensitive ear as composer-arranger, as well.
The music he brought to the Jazz Showcase on Thursday night, where he's leading his quintet through Sunday, was a bit more aggressive in character and sharp in tone than listeners might have expected. Yet considering the power and polish of Harrell's band, as well as the intellectual rigor of Harrell's compositions, that was no cause for complaint. Moreover, the lyrical core of Harrell's work shone through.
Harrell and friends came on strong from the start, tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery hitting particularly hard in Harrell's uptempo "Del Centro." Even beyond Escoffery's blistering phrases, though, it became instantly apparent that Harrell is leading a unit that plays with a singular purpose and unremitting emotional intensity. Combine Harrell and Escoffery's muscular front line work with Danny Grissett's full-bodied pianism, Ugonna Okegwo's robust bass and Johnathan Blake's push-the-beat energy on drums, and you had a quintet that did not waste time warming up.
In "Cycles," the two horns articulated the gnarly main theme with considerable finesse, setting the stage for Harrell's first significant solo of the night. Though the trumpeter dispatched various runs and flurries of notes, the melodic elegance of his playing was apparent throughout. Even fast-flying notes carried tonal weight and musical purpose, Harrell shaping series of pitches into beautifully wrought gestures. All the while, pianist Grissett's chord clusters added tension and color to the proceedings.
In lesser hands, Harrell's "Trances" might have devolved into an unintentional parody of funk-tinged back beats, with soloists riffing nonchalantly above them. But the Harrell band mostly avoided cliche, thanks to the copious invention of Harrell's solos, the unrepentant fury of Escoffery's statements and the big-and-brawny accompaniments that Grissett and Okegwo's consistently produced. Many jazz musicians have attempted to create substantive statements in this kind of dance-beat setting; few have done so as effectively as Harrell's quintet.
Though the evening's first set could have used more of the lyric introspection for which Harrell is widely admired, he certainly had a great deal to say in a duet with bassist Okegwo. Playing fluegelhorn in Tadd Dameron's "If You Could See Me Now," Harrell took a leisurely tempo, his long-lined phrases couched in a gauzy tone, with empathetic response from Okegwo.
Considering the cohesiveness of this ensemble, the eloquence of its soloists and the high craft of Harrell's compositions and arrangements in the opening set of a four-night run, there could be remarkable listening ahead.
Tom Harrell Quintet
When: 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday
Where: Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.
Admission: $20-$25; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com