Trumpeter Tom Harrell's Music Moves Choreographer Michele Wiles to, Well, Move

harrel pic
photo Emilie Pons

From time to time, I invite a guest blogger to fill this space. The last time I ran into Emilie Pons, she had her camera around her neck and she had good things to say about a collaboration between trumpeter Tom Harrell, a uniquely expressive presence in jazz, and choreographer Michele Wiles. Pons asked if I could use some of her photos. I told her to write the short piece you’ll find below.
When choreographer Michele Wiles heard trumpeter Tom Harrell for the first time, she felt touched by his music and compelled to work with him. Wiles then set about creating choreography for her contemporary ballet company, BalletNext, to two Harrell compositions, “Baroque Steps” and “Trances.” In early November, a few months after hearing Harrell lead his band at Manhattan’s Village Vanguard, she presented her intepretations in collaboration with him at New York Live Art Theater. The program, titled “Apogee in 3,” included a third piece—an improvisation for which she responded to the sound of Harrell’s trumpet with her body and he, in turn, to her movements.
“What drew me to Tom’s music is an emotional energy,” Wiles said. “I just felt every note he and his quintet played expresses how I want to dance—with my soul.”
photo Emilie Pons
photo Emilie Pons

Wiles’s four-year-old company (dancers Gracie Huber, Tiffany Mangulabnan, Jordan Miller, Amy Saunder and Jessica Tretter) shared the stage with Harrell’s quintet, featuring drummer Adam Cruz, bassist Ugonna Okegwo, pianist David Virelles, and saxophonist Ralph Moore. Wiles’s choreography took Harrell’s band concept as its starting point: The dancers’ movements seemed to extend the melodies Harrell played, and their interaction at times loosely mapped the band’s overall sound.
“Baroque Steps,” a powerful composition built on rhythm, lends itself easily to dance. “It has two chords that people solo over,” said Okegwo after the performance. “It also has a strong forward movement.” The tune’s use of modal orientation creates an sense of urgency much like a suspense film, an ambience that ran through the choreography as well.
“Trances,” a slower tune, lacked such tension. Its sense of freedom—the piece is based mostly on a single chord—was reflected by notably lyrical trumpet and saxophone solos and the waves and lines the dancers created with their bodies.
Harrell’s music employs many different forms and harmonic environments and is rhythmically complex. Yet for all his sophistication as a composer, he prizes melody and a clear sense of narrative. His is, above all, an accessible approach. Similarly, Wiles’s elaborate choreographic concepts never take away from the pure flow and consistent energy she communicates on stage; neither she nor Harrell, each in their distinct ways, ever fail to tell their audiences captivating stories through abstract means.
“I started this collaboration with a blank slate,” Wiles said, “and allowed things to come naturally to me while in the process of getting used to Tom’s style.” Such collaborations between jazz musicians and ballet dancers lend a new perspective to both forms. If this joint project begs for more, Wiles is working on it: She is preparing a new show that will and add 3 more Harrell pieces to the program.
Emilie Pons is a New York based reporter. She writes for Hot House Jazz, the news agency France USA Media and The Tico Times. She has also written for NPR and JazzTimes. Her Twitter is @emilie_pons.

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