But, after a long career as a sideman - with Horace Silver, Joe Lovano and others - and with a formidable reputation as one of the most lyrical of composers and soloists going, Harrell has begun to make his mark, despite the limits imposed by his condition. His last album, Labyrinth (BMG), was a model for the unfashionable genre of real jazz written for acoustic instruments, and he is able to command the services of the very best musicians available. Indeed, they seem to regard him with an almost religious awe. Drummer Billy Hart, saxophonist Don Braden and trombonist Wayne Andre were among the band heard here, and the music was thrillingly real too, warming up gradually to the point where, as the end of the long set approached, little miracles of unforced improvisation began to occur between the participants. As soloist after soloist was given time to excel, Harrell betrayed no sign of involvement other than through his own, quite wonderful, playing.
As a trumpeter, he favours brief, intense solos where the majesty of his technique lies as much in what he chooses not to say as what he does permit to escape from the bell of his horn. Though the orchestrations were perhaps more bigged-up variations on the small-group charts of his album than true octet arrangements exploiting the little big-band potential of the form, and the tunes continually devolved into duos and trios, the uncommon sensitivity of the compositions was always apparent.
What was most striking, however, was the obvious regard in which the band hold Harrell, exaggerated by his inability to display the usual football- manager's signs of motivation incumbent upon most band-leaders. As a result, the band looked to each other, flashes of eye contact between the players lighting up each exchange. Tenorist Don Braden and altoist Greg Tardy produced quite amazing solos, and drummer Hart acted as the de facto leader, the search-light beam of his eyes cueing in every change of emphasis. But Harrell was the eye of the storm, his incredibly soft, ineffably vulnerable presence and unbelievably beautiful playing somehow making it all happen, even as he stood like a narcoleptic at the centre of the stage, head down, eyes looking within, wonderful music all around.Reuse content