It was the most sonically stripped-down moment, and perhaps the most dramatic: About midway through his first set on a recent Thursday night at New York’s venerable Village Vanguard, three of Tom Harrell’s bandmates slipped off stage, leaving the veteran brass player and prolific composer alone except for bassist Ugonna Okegwo, who stood at the rear of the small stage.
Picking up his flugelhorn, Harrell began outlining the pretty melody of “If You Could See Me Now,” a ‘40s standard written by Tadd Dameron for singer Sarah Vaughan. Backed solely by Okegwo’s walking lines on double bass, the leader lifted the theme with his burnished tone, and a solo that was a model of agility and harmonic invention, a free-flowing fount of ideas.
Harrell, 71, dressed in an elegant black suit and leading a quintet on flugelhorn and trumpet, handily reminded listeners of his enduring gifts as an improviser and composer, during a set dominated by his ambitious, multicolor tunes.
For opener “View,” from his 2016 “Something Gold, Something Blue” album, Harrell and alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw played a series of hard-accented harmony and unison figures, and then Shaw let loose against the jagged rhythms stirred up by Okegwo, drummer Joe Dyson and pianist Danny Grissett before Harrell took over.
An ostinato alternated with a hard-swinging passage on the recently penned “The Try,” during which Harrell’s fluid soloing at times occasionally reminded of the late Art Farmer; the two likeminded players allied on 1994’s “Company I Keep” album.
“Time Passage,” from last year’s “Moving Picture” album, opened up for Dyson’s melodic, expressive trap-kit work. And “Wind,” the extended closer, a through-composed piece also written within the last year, had the horn players play a minor-toned figure before quickly making way for an extended, exploratory passage featuring Okegwo.
Those unable to catch Harrell during his two-week run at the Vanguard in January have more opportunities to hear him there at the end of June and/or later this year; he’s scheduled to play the celebrated Manhattan basement nightclub a total of five weeks this year. Also ahead for Harrell in 2018: March duo performances, with Grissett, with New York’s BalletNext company; a European tour in April and May; more writing for quartets (with and without piano) and quintet; and a new recording.
It may be impossible, however, to beat the musically intimate experience of catching Harrell’s group up close at the Vanguard which, with its sublime acoustics, history, and respect for talent, remains the world’s jazz mecca.