When the opening cut on an album called "The Art of Rhythm" includes not a single percussion instrument, it foreshadows an ambitious recording. On his second RCA release, trumpeter/flugelhornist Tom Harrell utilizes two dozen musicians and 26 different instruments in varying combinations across 10 original compositions and arrangements. While all songs feature a distinctly tropical Latin/Caribbean ambience, a theme common to all Harrell's work, the tempos, time signatures and instrumentation are constantly changing. Harrell moves gracefully from atmospheric melodies floating atop serene strings to funky modal workouts and densely layered big-band explorations.
On "Petals Danse," for example, Harrell's crystalline flugelhorn enhances the mood established by violin, viola and cello. "Petals Danse" also introduces two of the album's outstanding assets: Greg Tardy's feathery clarinet and Romero Lubambo's supple acoustic guitar, to which the rhythm is entrusted here. On "Madrid," Yoron Israel initiates a marchlike beat using snare drum and suspended cymbals, while the band glides along on a soothing bossa nova. Harrell's flugelhorn acknowledges Israel's percussion while maintaining the soft mood.
Just as you settle into a cool-breeze atmosphere, "Oasis" jars you with a jagged rhythm set up by drums, cowbell, congas, shaker and a pair of basses. Danilo Perez's spooky harmonium and forceful piano accent creative solos from Harrell on trumpet and tenor Dewey Redman. The result recalls late-period Miles Davis. The standout "Doo Bop" bears the closest resemblance to "straight" jazz, anchored by a superb rhythm section of Perez, Ugonna Okegwo on bass and Leon Parker on drums. Harrell proves he can be engaging and innovative within the confines of a conventional jazz setting.
Even the less compelling melodies or arrangements provide useful springboards for Harrell's lyrical, relaxed and assured horn work. "Cinco Quatro" (named for its time signature) and "Samba Do Amor," comparatively limpid compositions, offer Harrell's most expressive improvisations. The inclusion of electric guitarist Mike Stern, no doubt a gifted musician, seems superfluous on "Exit In" and "Samba," especially with Lubambo's acoustic in the mix. Stern's echo-heavy musings lend an unwelcome smooth edge -- like mint in an overly precious meal.
"The Art of Rhythm" represents a challenge of complexity for musicians and listeners alike. Jazz relies on emotion, creativity and freedom, and too much thought can become a detriment. Although Harrell often comes dangerously close to crossing that line, making this sprawling feast difficult to digest at first, it's quite satisfying once you do.