Saturday, February 13, 2010

A Birthday Present from Tom Harrell

This week I got to see trumpeter Tom Harrell play with his quintet at Dazzle here in Denver, and it was fantastic. The group featured Wayne Escoffery on saxophone, Danny Grissett on piano, Ugonna Okegwo on bass, and Donald Edwards on drums. The pictures that illustrate this story are from that show, and there are more pictures here. However, the story I am about to tell you is about seeing him in a different context a few years back. It's kind of a long story, but I think you'll enjoy it.

For my 40th birthday, I treated myself to dinner and a concert by Tom Harrell at the Mount Vernon Country Club. The show was billed as the Tom Harrell Piano Trio, and the promo made specific mention of the fact that Tom would be playing piano as well as the trumpet/flugelhorn he is famous for. Now, Tom is known as one the best trumpeter players in the world, but no one really knew anything about his piano playing. And as some folks reading this are probably also aware, he has some well-publicized mental health issues (diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic), and between that and the effects of the medication he takes to control his condition, there is always some element of mystery where Tom is concerned. So between that and the fact that no one in attendance had ever heard him play piano, and no one really had no idea what to expect that night.

I arrived early as I had made reservations for dinner before the show. I came alone, as my wife had a gig, and I was seated at a small table directly in front of the piano. I wondered for a moment if Peter - the general manager of the place and a huge jazz fan whom I had met but did not know well - had somehow made sure I would have a good view because he knew I was a pianist (he almost certainly would not have known it was my birthday). I decided this was pretty unlikely - why would the general manager be looking over seating arrangements personally? - and attributed my prime seating to nothing but coincidence and good fortune. During the buffet dinner, though, I happened to walk past where Peter was sitting, and he stopped me and asked if I liked my table. Apparently, he had deliberately sat me there after all; I was originally supposed to off in a corner somewhere.

But that's not all. Peter then asked me if I would like to sit in and give Tom a chance to just concentrate on trumpet for a tune or two. Not that he had checked with Tom yet, but Peter wanted to gauge my interest. I was kind of stunned - I'm a reasonably well known pianist in the area, but people aren't normally asked to sit on concerts of this sort, and frankly, as far as I knew, Peter had barely heard me play before. I told him I would certainly love to play with Tom, and that I even knew one of his tunes - Sail Away. Peter told me he'd check with Tom and get back to me. I went back to my table and finished my dinner.

So then the concert started. Tom has written a whole bunch of new material lately, so he and the rest of the band were all reading it. I liked the moods they created. Tom mostly played the piano. I suspect that Peter, like most people there, probably wanted to hear Tom play a little more trumpet, as that's what he is famous for resides, and that's probably why he was so keen on having me sit in.

They finished up by playing a bebop tune and Tom introduced the bassist and drummer (the first words out of his mouth all evening). Then they left to a round of applause. At that point, Peter (the general manager) lept up to the stage and encouraged us to keep clapping, and maybe Tom would come back for an encore - and Marc Sabatella (that's me) might even join them.

Sure enough, Tom and the band came back out, and Peter motioned me on stage. He had told Tom I knew Sail Away, but the bassist looked at me and said he didn't really know the tune, so Tom and I should just do it as a duo. It shocked me at first that Tom's bassist wouldn't know what was undoubtedly his most famous composition, but apparently they had been playing Tom's new music exclusively in this group. I tried suggesting we just do a standard we all knew, but I don't think Tom heard any of this exchange, and he started counting off Sail Away in his usual manner ("uh, uh, uh, uh"). Tom started playing the melody, I started accompanying him, and the bassist and drummed slipped out the back.

Now, what happens next is best appreciated if I give you a little bit of backstory. Back when I was in college at FSU in the 80's, another famous trumpeter - Red Rodney - did a concert as a featured soloist with our school big band. I was new enough to jazz that I didn't know who he was, although someone probably told me he had once played with Charlie Parker. What I did know was that I had this big unaccompanied solo right in the middle of an arrangement of My Romance - a whole chorus of nothing but me. But no one told Red this. On the concert, when it came time for my solo, and the rest of the band dropped out, Red just kept playing, so it was me and him. Now, had I been a mature adult with any respect for jazz history, I would have been in heaven, thinking to myself, "how cool is this - I'm playing a duo with Red Rodney"! But alas, I was young, cocky, and ignorant, and my actual thoughts ran more along the lines of, "you m*****f***er, get off the stage - this is my solo"! I've been paying for this in bad karma ever since, with the price usually involving someone stepping on one of my solos on that same tune (which has happened on several other occasions strangely enough).

So, now, back to Mount Vernon. Tom Harrell counted off Sail Away, and it's just me and him. I'm thinking to myself, "how cool is this - I'm playing a duo with Tom Harrell"! I even managed to flash back to my experience with Red Rodney and laugh a little at myself for having wished Red Rodney would leave the stage and let me have my solo. So there I am up on stage with Tom, finally able to appreciate the opportunity I was being blessed with. I was playing accompaniment as he started playing the melody: "da da daah; da da dah da dah da daah; da da dah da dah da daah, daah, daaah...". And then - I swear I could not possibly make this up - before we got ten seconds into the piece, Tom walked off the stage and left me to finish it for myself, thus ending our duo and giving me the solo performance I had stupidly wished for 20 years earlier.

I knew enough about Tom's condition not to take this personally. There could have been any number of reasons for him to have left in the middle of the tune like that, and there was no point in worrying about what they were. More pressing was the question of what to actually do about it. I considered simply stopping right where I was, walking off the stage myself, and forgetting the whole thing. I considered just finishing up the melody and cutting it off there. But what I decided was this: people are there listening, so I might as well give them some music. So I played the rest of the melody myself, took a rather perfunctory but serviceable solo chorus, and as I was getting ready to play the head out, Tom rejoined me, so we did finish the tune together. The bassist and drummer came back with him, and Tom asked if I would join them for a tune everyone knew, so we played Like Someone In Love." The bassist informed me they did this in Ab, which is not one of the three keys this tune is most commonly played in. But I had spent the better part of two years learning to handle just that sort of situation - basically teaching myself to transpose by ear. So while it might not have been a great performance on my part, I acquitted myself well enough. And that was that.

After the show, we speculated on what happened. Someone suggested to me that perhaps Tom had left because he felt bad about doing an encore without the rest of his band. Someone else told me the piano was turned up fairly high in the monitors because Tom had a relatively light touch, and when I played with my heavier touch, it may have been too loud for him. Just this week when my wife interviewed him for her radio show on KUVO, we learned that Sail Away has major personal significance for Tom, and it is possible that whatever he was thinking, he may have been overcome with emotion as well. But I cannot discount karma as an explanation, either.

I did get to talk to Tom myself a little right after playing with him, but of course I didn't come out and directly ask about that, and I think I'm just as happy not having a definitive answer. Oh well. I got to hear a nice concert, had a great time on Like Someone In Love, had that surreal ten second experience on Sail Away, and most of all, came away with a story to tell. Not a bad way to spend one's 40th birthday. Tom, if you're reading this, thank you!