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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Beautiful, tortured Tom Harrell

There could have been few better places to be on a recent Friday after dark than elbow to elbow with fellow disciples of jazz in the subterranean recesses of Manhattan's Iridium club.    The feeling was intimate, and the mood was warm.  The ensemble's lead was tall and gaunt, head flexed like a puppet revealing only what he wanted us to see, a dense mop of grey.   Standing statue straight and motionless in a rumpled back suit, he gave no hint that he was hearing the stream of sound, the cascade of notes and changing rhythms - not, at least, until he drew a pflugelhorn to his lips and began to play.  Neither did he let on that he was fighting down the voices, the scourge of those who suffer from paranoid schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia is, unfortunately, a fairly common condition, affecting more than 1 in 200 individuals overall.  Despite dramatic advances in the neurosciences, the causes of this disorder are only partly understood, and the mainstay of treatment - antipsychotic medication - mitigates symptoms but does not offer a cure.

Does the person own his chronic illness, or visa versa?  Our use of language has blurred this distinction for centuries.  Once there were consumptives and cripples; now there are asthmatics and diabetics.  There is a school of thought (to which I subscribe) which holds that terms like this submerge the person in the disease, are harmful for this reason, and should therefore be abandoned altogether.

The notes that flow out across the stage and over the audience make patterns within patterns, wild and unexpected scales, sliding and leaping beyond reason, making one excursion after another, traveling farther and father afield, notes that to the classical ear are crazy and dizzying, their thin tether to reality making a connection of delicate beauty.

Tom Harrell battles a brain disease. Listen to his new album, "The TIme of the Sun." Then consider whether one should describe him as "a schizophrenic."    

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