Tom Harrell, Colours of a Dream, Ronnie Scott’s, 8 July 2014


It is hard to envisage how the performance could have been any better than that witnessed by the nearly-full complement at Ronnie’s, all of whom had made the amply rewarded decision to skip the football in favour of jazz.

The way Esperanza Spalding’s face brightened with joy in response to the performances of some of her bandmates was visible for all to see, especially during Jonathan Blake’s more intense moments. Blake exhibited a slice of his leader’s unwavering concentration and seriousness of purpose and blazed away on one of the most thrilling drum solos I have heard in a jazz setting, perhaps ever. During the rest of the performance he also laid down some very funky beats.

The discipline and tightness of the band, reading from bandleader/trumpeter Harrell’s complex sheet music, was akin to that of a well-drilled classical ensemble. Jaleel Shaw on alto, a relatively recent addition to Harrell’s ambit, performed some very well crafted solos that built to powerful, emotionally engaging conclusions. The longer-established Wayne Escoffery came to the fore on tenor during the second set especially.

Although the band of three horns, two double basses, drums, and Spalding on largely wordless vocals, was a joy to behold for the level of melodic interplay, passion and tightness they achieved, a highlight occurred towards the end of the first set when Harrell on flugelhorn and trumpet performed with the accompaniment of the two bases. Spalding played mostly in the higher registers on her bass, while Ugonna Okegwo duetted with her in the lower registers. Such is Harrell’s sensitivity to timbre that at one point of this section he shifted mid-solo from one microphone feed to another, evidently having detected a better sound quality from the second mike.

Harrell is, it is fair to say, something of an idiosyncratic stage presence: Pete Townshend’s lyric about his character Tommy seems apt; “he’s in a quiet vibration land”. While he managed to drawl the names of his band members, no other information such as titles of tunes performed was provided. Not unlike the great Clive Lloyd batting, he fixes his gaze at a point a short distance in front of him. Apparently, he composes almost continuously and it is the melodic strength and harmonic invention of his writing in a number of different contexts that attracts such a stellar cast to perform his arrangements with him. Esperanza Spalding hardly needs the work, I am sure, and it was a rare treat to see her perform in this context.

The performance of the Shane Forbes quartet introduced by Alex Garnet for the late, late show also merits a mention in despatches. I stayed longer than I should have to hear their take on two Coltrane compositions: ‘Liberia’ and ‘Spiritual’. I left as Ellington’s ‘Solitude’ was getting underway. Would that I had been able to stay to the end! It was an evening’s entertainment that left you feeling energised and uplifted.

– Graham Boyd