Ring the release date on your calendar: a head's up to the release of Oak Tree given that it is not out until the middle of next month. Recorded at Sear Sound, one of New York city's top recording studios, over a couple of days in late-November 2020, playing compositions by Tom Harrell who is if you know his mighty body of work of course a great writer of communicative melody and emotion in his musical structures Oak Tree will be added to the marlbank list of best albums of 2022 on the next update a choice that is not so much instinctive to decide because it is that but also common sense. With every listen Oak Tree grows not just through familiarity but in nobility and tenderness. You always get tenderness with Tom Harrell who was 73 when he made this lockdownian-time record.
So, that's the, dare we essay, scoop. But without being cheesy a road to listening began by listening to the invasive fragility of 'Shadows' which is the eighth track containing as it does a sort of a samba feel to it that gathers its own warts and all modal gravity wrapped around it.
Harrell on this HighNote album, a ''Dream Fields'' label known among collectors for reliable quality and taste that specialises in straightahead and the classic hard bop generally, is with pianist Luis Perdomo, tremendous last year with Miguel Zenón on El Arte Del Bolero; bassist Ugonna Okegwo heard recently on Aaron Seeber's excellent First Move; and completing the personnel drummer Adam Cruz who was on Harrell's beautiful album Infinity.
That was how we began so almost like at the end. But if this isn't too contradictory or perverse a statement a piece where you get the sense of a beginning, as in the coming of new life. At the actual beginning 'Evoorg' which is if you read the word backwards 'Groove' and an uptempo foray that shifts along nimbly. Some might discern a slight Celtic connotation in the grace notes, a sound that is as ancient as the Anatolian plain.
Harrell's first solo of the record is positive and likeable. He's on trumpet on this track but later on in the album plays flugel on three tracks. Which horn he plays does not matter at all incidentally because it all comes out as Tom. The septuagenarian always comes into his own on ballads but you also get a poetic personality too on the more driving passages. If new to him go listen to the record he made with Ethan Iverson (who writes the sleeve notes) Common Practice and especially what happens on 'All The Things You Are' the greatest of all jazz standards because it challenges the players harmonically and contains every emotion you need in the space of a single song both happiness and sadness and all the shades in between.
Luis Perdomo here on Oak Tree is on piano, later he plays Fender Rhodes on three tracks not too much to get tired of the Rhodes sound. 'Fivin’' isn't really a metrical puzzle but shows certainly no one here is coasting. The more the tune goes on in the soloing against the rhythm section the more ''loquacious'' Harrell becomes. We like that. No one is pining for the fjords on Oak Tree and not to dead parrot on too much there's beautiful plumage in the perkiness from Perdomo on Rhodes.
The big moment is the ballad 'Oak Tree' which comes next. No wonder it is used as the title track. Thinking of the highest praise to allot it this sounds like something Richard Rodgers might have been proud to have written. I guess but who knows that someone will one day write lyrics to ''the song'' because it sounds like a song and in unofficial parlance anyway is.
'Tribute' has a slight bossa connotation beautifully retrofitted and completely reharmonised into something else, in other words not at all a copy or quote, but still subliminally reminiscent of the tail end of the main motif of Jobim's 'Samba de uma Nota Só' in English known as 'One Note Samba'. 'Zatoichi' works up tiny gradations and nudges semi-tones, an avant mysterious atmosphere run with by Okegwo. The 'Sun Up' Rhodes figure shifts the beat to linger behind what's going on across the ensemble sound. And going up high Harrell sounds different the more if-you-like and not being preposterous bugle-like side of his timbral canopy he decides to explore. 'Improv' is beautiful not as the name suggests a ''free'' thing at all however created more into something that lands in a ready for Freddie (aren't we always?) Hubbard-esque scurryingly optimistic mood. Perdomo who plays a big presence on this record gives one of his best solos early on in the tune.
Hearing 'Shadows' now in the context of the sequence does not matter. It could be anywhere which in itself is a good sign. Indeed, you could listen to any track on this album in any order you like, especially given that most people now use streaming services like they are tackling an all-day veritable Olympic style breakfast at any time of the day feasting on singles whether it's sun up or sun down. The curiously titled 'Archaeopteryx' bounces mightily where Cruz is as discreet and stylish as ever. 'Robot Etude' has a fantastic riff set up by Harrell that is echoed by Perdomo. The mighty Okegwo tunnels deep and breaks new earth. What a way to finish the record, what a record, with the panoramic universality of 'Love Tide.' Tom Harrell, photo: Angela Harrell, who co-produced the record with her husband. Out on 15 July