“Every time I record a new album, I try to make it different from what I‘ve done in the past,” says the 57‐year‐old Harrell, who was recently the subject of an in‐depth profile on 60 Minutes II with Charlie Rose. “This is the first time I‘ve worked with singers under my own name, but I've always gravitated toward vocal music. Back when I lived in San Francisco, I played with a group called Azteca that had four singers. I like working with vocalists especially since the trumpet is a brass instrument that has an affinity to the sound of the human voice.” Harrell pauses then notes, "One of the first people I listened to when I was young was Louis Armstrong. He was not only a top influence on trumpeters, but also on jazz vocalists."
Wise Children comprises ten Harrell originals that are melodically rich and stylistically diverse, ranging from show‐stopping ballads and pensive trumpet songs to world musicinfused jaunts and plugged‐in tunes with funked up beats. He approaches the tunes as a visual artist, with color and shading foremost in his mind. “I like to think of my music as a play of colors with a groove,” he says. “I like to create beauty and bring listeners together to enjoy the blend of colors. It‘s like people going to an art gallery to view an exhibit of paintings.” Harrell notes that jazz artists, like painters such as Rembrandt and Monet, create in the moment to express their feelings. "Life is so intriguing because there is constant change. There‘s a certain shading for every moment. That's what we do when we play. We express our feelings through the textures and colors of the sensual material world and then transcend that into the spiritual realm."
The disc opens with the upbeat “Paz”, which simmers with percussion and cools with stringed orchestration. The tune is spirited yet has a vein of drama and mystery. “I wanted to make this piece flow from beginning to end,” says Harrell. "I wanted it to have an openended feel. As Duke Ellington once said, ‘Those unfinished endings are a reality.‘ This tune conveys a feeling of infinity, that life goes on. It¹s hopeful: Life goes on forever." He notes that this arrangement made for a particularly strong vehicle for drummer Quincy Davis who's featured toward the end of the tune.
Dianne Reeves sings into the romantic marrow of “Straight to My Heart”, a balladic number with an R&B feel that Harrell wrote and Kami Lyle provided the lyrics to. “Great lyrics can help to tell a story,” says Harrell. "Kami‘s lyrics are very poetic and they touch me autobiographically when I play this song. Her words helped the music come alive. And Dianne, she‘s such a great singer. She does an excellent job. She lives up to the meaning of the song."
The quietly exotic “Kalimba” also represents another studio first for Harrell: playing the balafon percussion instrument for tonal coloration. “The groove is strong here,” he says. "I got the idea for this song several years ago when I played with a pianist named Jim Young in San Francisco. During the sets he soloed on the kalimba, which is also called the African thumb piano." For the number Harrell explored the interchange of instrumental roles, where the trumpet plays in the rhythm section along with the strings. An extra bonus is percussionist Café playing the Brazilian one‐stringed instrument, the berimbau, which sonically complements the kalimba played by Xavier Davis.
The Brazilian influence continues with “Radiant Moon”, a Harrell composition fleshed out lyrically by jazz vocalist Lisa Michel (who wrote words to the trumpeter‘s tune “Visions of Gaudi” for the title track of her 1999 CD When Summer Comes). Claudia Acuña takes the microphone for this rousing number that features vocalist and trumpeter dancing lines at the end. "There‘s a beautiful spirit to this song," Harrell says. "It's almost like a chant. The first chords of the song are mostly in the same scale but toward the end the chords become more chromatic. This is the first time I worked with Claudia and she was incredible. She helped to give the song its unique quality."
After the sprightly “What Will They Think Of Next”, driven by a funk groove, spiced by Café‘s percussion, harmonically illuminated by the tenor sax‐alto sax‐bass trombone horn section and roused into motion by Xavier on Fender Rhodes and clavinet, Harrell returns to the reflective zone with “Snow”, originally titled "Ballad in D" as an instrumental. Michel supplied the lyrics and Jane Monheit gives a striking performance on the beauty. Harrell elegantly sings on the flugelhorn and the five‐string section delivers a classical musictinged interlude. "Jane did a terrific job on this," Harrell says. "She sang this tune innovatively." He pauses and recalls the blizzards of the past winter: "I love living where there are dramatic seasons. I remember the snow days when I was a child in Illinois." After the quiet "Snow", Harrell reheats the proceedings with "Heavens", a bright, sunny melody with a Latin flavor, and "See You at Seven", a soul‐stirring groove number buoyed by Xavier on Fender Rhodes, Reuben Rogers on electric bass and Marvin Sewell on electric guitar. The former showcases Harrell‘s band, especially Greene on flute. Harrell says, "This tune shows the advantages of recording with a working band. Everything came together naturally when we played this." As for the latter, the leader says, "It sounds great; it feels good. It's got that Chicago blues sound." That's followed by the final vocal number, "Leaves", a gem of a melody (originally titled "Peace") supplied with lyrics by Michel and graced by the singing of Cassandra Wilson. Her deep‐throated, husky voice is gorgeously complemented by Harrell's burnished flugelhorn tone. "Cassandra was amazing," he says. "She gave a great reading of this song."
Wise Children concludes with the striking title tune, a pensive composition arranged and orchestrated by Harrell. “I wrote it one afternoon as a means of reaching back to my ancestral roots. In recent years, I‘ve become more aware of how important it is to stay in touch with your roots.” The piece started off as a piano sketch that was then expanded for three trumpets, two French horns, bass trombone and tuba. “I love the sound of brass when you double notes. I also like the feel of the piece because there are no chordal instruments.”
Wise Children is Harrell‘s first studio album since 2001‘s Paradise, which was followed by last year's Live at the Village Vanguard. The new disc represents another triumph for the trumpeter, whose professional career began in the late '60s and early '70s in the employ of first Stan Kenton and then Woody Herman. He went on to play with a variety of jazz stars, including Horace Silver (four years in the mid‐'70s), Lee Konitz (three years, from 1979‐ 81) and Phil Woods (seven years, from 1983‐89). Harrell's solo recording career has afforded him an even higher profile and garnered him the reputation as one of jazz's most creative trumpeters.
Harrell is especially enthusiastic about Wise Children. “Each time you record, hopefully you are making a statement about yourself in the world at a given moment,” he says. “My feeling of who I am is always changing. Everything is in flux. It‘s like Salvador Dali and surrealism: The minute you feel you‘ve got a grip on life, it's already slipped away and changed into something else. That's the paradox of life and it brings up the role of the artist. You can't do the same thing over and over again. You'd get bored quickly with your work. It's more fun and satisfying to find new and different things to do.”