Conflict and resolution. Tension and release. Contrast. Jazz students learn these concepts as the basic building blocks of musical expression. Few artists embody these concepts both inwardly and outwardly more starkly than trumpeter Tom Harrell, who brought his quintet to Yoshi's San Francisco on Wednesday night. It was refreshing to see a great many aspiring young musicians in the audience being schooled by one of the living masters of modern jazz.
Juxtaposition is not confined to the music at a Tom Harrell show. Harrell suffers from schizophrenia, and the sheer effort and courage required for him to take the stage and maintain his composure over the course of a performance are at once inspiring and unsettling.
On Wednesday, as always, Harrell emerged from behind the curtains slowly, deliberately, dressed in black, and made his way to his position onstage in silence. He opened a manila folder containing his charts and spent a few minutes organizing his music just so, then finally stood up straight, eyes closed, head down, still, though trembling slightly.
It is at this moment of every Tom Harrell show I've seen that I wonder if he'll be able to summon the inner strength to go ahead with the performance. Then, with a subtle tap of one foot, he cues the band, puts his trumpet to his lips, and as the first few notes flow out of his horn a miracle occurs.
While playing, and only while playing, Harrell is in complete control of his world and his surroundings. All symptoms of his illness disappear, replaced by one of the most recognizable, sophisticated and mature voices active in the post-bop tradition.
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