Colors of a Dream is another complex and compelling collection by Tom Harrell, a record including distinct Latin flavors, innovative rhythms and harmonies, and a luminous ballad or two. It’s a template he deployed with his working quintet for five glittering albums in a row on HighNote, beginning with Light On in 2007, but this time he has a crucial catalyst in Esperanza Spalding, who, beside Ugonna Okegwo (replacing pianist Danny Grissert) adds a different pith and texture in the rhythm section. Deploying Spalding’s vocalese like a horn while adding alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw in a front line that includes Wayne Escoffrey on tenor sax and his own trumpet work enables Harrell to approximate the depth and pastel nuances of a big band in his arrangements and voicings.
The opener, “Tango,” immediately showcases this revamped sextet’s personality. Spalding scats, the horns weigh in (Harrell’s immense tone, which is both sharp and buttery, always lands like a pleasant surprise) and the band moves with the pronounced strides of tango dancers before the bassists once again emerge in unison and counterpoint. The “big band” sound is in full effect on “Phantasy in Latin” and “Blues 2013,” with the saxophonist’s strutting their respective personalities (Shaw favoring rapid modulation; Escoffery tonal and textural variation) and drummer Johnathan Blake seizing on the absence of piano with powerful fills that engage the horns. “Nite Life” and “Goin’ Out” are staccato grooves that qualify as practically danceable. Spalding’s scatting is most arresting on “Even If” (which features a five-note vamp) and her lone vocal with lyrics, sung in Portuguese, grace rendition of Harrell’s 1989 gem, “Sail Away.”
One can’t quite say that Colors of a Dream eclipses the extremely high standard set by Harrell’s quintet outings on HighNote. But the trumpeter/composer has adroitly shifted gears, keeping some of his band’s distinctive elements while adding significant new ones to the mix. It is an exciting renewal.