A big crowd greeted the Tom Harrell Quintet at A Place for Jazz on Friday as the trumpeter led his group through a hard-swinging start to the 26th season.
Uptempo from the start, crisp and strong, they mostly generated high pressure, with just one ballad per set.
No one called the tunes, and Harrell calls his new album “Number Five” — odd, since he’s released 30 or more — so I’ll number them. One romped, tenor saxman Wayne Escoffery soloing first, then Harrell’s flugelhorn heating things up. Two didn’t slow much but built a long-line melody, keyboardist Danny Grissett shifting to Rhodes for a more percussive feel and the horns sliding in under his solo and playing sharp in stop and go bursts at the end.
Three started stormy with drummer Johnathan Blake alone, his solo forming a muscular Latin vamp the horns rode like partners more than passengers. Four was a duet, piano and flugelhorn trading stanzas in an elegiac poem. Grissett had the best of it as Harrell fought his horn early, then got control.
Five and Six rolled straight ahead, Escoffery showing off dramatic low whomps and confident fast arpeggios, Grissett going all Horace Silver on Rhodes in Five as the frontline stepped aside midway for bassist Ugonna Okegwo to solo so impressively we knew what we’d missed earlier when he was hard to hear.
After a break, Seven showed they were still in a mood to swing; a straight-ahead blowing number that Grissett suavely owned. And if Seven quoted “A Night in Tunisia,” Eight had the bite of “Salt Peanuts,” Blake’s solo pulling the band to an all-in recap.
Nine was a better duet than Four, with Harrell at his lyrical best. Ten swapped the all-in/solos/recap format with a trio intro, as Grissett led the way; the horns tugging the riff into the minor as a feisty funk groove formed and flowed. When they hit a hard stop to close the tune, the set and the show, they were as strong and sharp as in their first number; One, remember?
Harrell goofed on his famously odd affect early on, moving as if to start, then dropping his hands to his sides in his characteristically withdrawn way; then he smiled and fired up tune One. He closed his eyes when playing, echoing Miles Davis, Clifford Brown and Freddie Hubbard, but always sounding like himself in the graceful way he thought his way through the songs. He dropped his hands otherwise and lowered his head as if voyaging to a distant planet deep in his own mind; but often grinning to himself when the band did cool stuff, which was nearly all the time.
Equal parts Silver, Herbie Hancock and Joe Zawinul, Grissett always impressed. Pleasingly visible, a big guy on a small set, Blake was thrillingly right when he played in the pocket, but also fresh. At times he made us imagine the pocket belonged to a pair of pants hung on a clothesline in a high wind.
Escoffery played in a well-mannered way, but with swagger when he wanted it. Okegwo and Blake modulated the beat with smiles.
The band was tight but human, warmly un-mechanical despite playing for years together.
A Place for Jazz continues Sept. 28 with singer Mary Stallings and her trio.