Tom Harrell,
Time's Mirror
(RCA Victor, 1999)

If you've ever found yourself wishing that Miles Davis and Gil Evans could come back to life and get inside the studio for just one more session, you'll find your wish very nearly granted with Tom Harrell's new and magical album, Time's Mirror. This is jazz at its most glorious and most lovely.

Harrell, who has paid his dues for years, (but who I saw for the first time several years ago playing trumpet with Phil Woods), has recorded two previous solo albums for RCA: Labyrinth and The Art of Rhythm, both of which reveal his impeccable taste in both tunes and in finding just the right notes and silences to attain the desired effect. Time's Mirror is another brilliant and different step for this brass genius.

Harrell plays here with a big band put together for just this session, and what a band it is. The perfection of their ensemble work makes them sound like they've been playing together for fifty years, but with constant freshness and innovation. Most of these arrangements were actually written by Harrell back in the '60s, so you won't be hearing anything that's going to puzzle your ears too much, making this the perfect CD for listeners new to jazz. It should win converts the same way that the Davis/Evans records did back in the '50s and '60s.

The first track, a Harrell original called "Shapes," shows off the band's sweet, sharp and crisp intonation right out of the gate. It's also blessed by immaculate solos that would be right at home in smaller group jazz, centered by Harrell's own priceless voice. The big band comes screaming back at the end. The standard, "Autumn Leaves," starts out with a real swinging, '60s Basie feel. Though many of these players are known for their solo work, they play ensemble brilliantly, as though they realize that not only is every voice important, but how every voice blends with the next is even more so. The ascending brass figures, for example, are just so clean and together that it's like one player with many voices.

"Daily News," another Harrell original, has a real Miles 'n Gil feel, being a horn solo with the band comping beautifully under the leader. Johnny Mercer's "Dream" becomes a musical dream in Harrell's chart, as varied musical images creep in, rendering the whole landscape slightly askew, with oddities glimpsed from the corner of the eye. Harrell's solo floats in just long enough to bring the dream to a whispery end. A Charlie Parker tune, "Chasin' the Bird," is next, a bright ensemble piece with interweaving lines and a great, right-hand, Bud Powell style solo from pianist Xavier Davis. Harrell's solo bows to the bopsters with a few bop cliches, but twisted just enough to make them notably Harrell. He proves himself here, as elsewhere, a very tasteful and intelligent player, never approaching histrionics or volume or power for its own sake, but knowing, like Miles, that the notes you don't play are often as important as those you do.

"Sao Paulo" is a Latin-tinged Harrell tune, featuring another sweet solo by Xavier Davis, and a warm and ebullient alto sax solo by Mark Gross. The title track is next, and Miles' shadow looms long in this soft, understated, almost minimalist piece, that features a gorgeous Don Braden tenor solo. "Train Shuffle" shuffles us to the album's end with a bouncy and rhythmic arrangement.

The impression given by Time's Mirror is that of a really classic album from 1964. Harrell's arrangements, even the newer ones, are very much in the finest tradition of that period. But believe me, that's not a criticism. This isn't neoclassicist jazz. There's no trace here of young lions pretending to be the hard boppers of the '50s and '60s.

No, this is the real deal, written and played by a man who lived through those times, kept these charts, and "pondered them in his heart," until the time was right and planets had rolled around again. Like the very best jazz, past, present, and future, Time's Mirror is timeless.

[ by Chet Williamson ]

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