Things of beauty can come from the release of one’s traumas. Harry Skoler experienced the loss of a friend as a teenager, a passing that deeply impacted the clarinetist/composer and left an indelible mark on his person. On his new recording, Red Brick Hill, Skoler revisits the past and delivers the story instrumentally with an incredible array of musicians in an effort to cleanse his soul, keep his friend’s legacy alive, and to, hopefully, help others with such burdens through the gift of music.

Skoler grew up in a house his father designed at the top of a red brick hill. Though there weren’t many children in their neighborhood, Skoler was able to develop deep friendships with a young girl named Nancy and a quiet, serious boy named Bill. When they were teenagers, Bill moved away from the hill but first brought Skoler a box of his childhood toys and trinkets. It wasn’t until later that Skoler was walking with a friend and saw Bill’s mother pulling into his friend’s house.

Curious as to her appearance, Skoler asked his friend about Bill. His friend told Skoler that he wasn’t supposed to tell him anything. Pressing the friend, Skoler found out that Bill was dead. Running back to his house in a frenzy, Skoler dove into the past weeks’ newspapers, only to find an article relating Bill’s suicide. Devastated, Skoler received no solace from his parents and found that they had even asked that others not tell him of Bill’s demise.

The loss and the actions of those around him had lasting effects on Skoler. It was only through making music that he was able to deal with the loss and feel the spirit of his lost friend. Through time and with help, Skoler was able to confront his emotions and find appropriate outlets to express them. In 2022 Skoler began work on a new project and it was producer Walter Smith III who encouraged Skoler’s decision to take the story and work it into a musical narrative.

In August 2022, Skoler and his son went to New York City to record the album at Sear Sound. Prior to the session, Skoler told the story to which his son replied that Skoler should tell the ensemble that he and Smith had assembled, which included vibraphonist Joel Ross, bassist Dezron Douglas, and drummer Johnathan Blake, the story. The musicians listened to the story with empathy and promised to tell the tale through their playing. The recording evidences the ensemble’s empathy, as the music highlights the ensemble’s connection throughout.

The recording is programmatic. Skoler first introduces his first friendship with “NanCee,” a bittersweet theme song for his dear friend led by Ross’s resonant vibes. The lovely ballad “Last Star, Last Night” reflects on how even though there are millions of stars in the sky, like people on earth, it may be that star’s last moment, as Bill probably realized it was near his last moment when no one else could. The piece also features a touching guest appearance by pianist Christian Sands. “ascent” is the first of three duo pieces. This duet with Douglas represents Bill’s walk up the hill with the box to deliver to Skoler. Marquis Hill adds his emotive trumpet to Skoler’s strident clarinet frontline on the emotionally diminished “blue, mostly,” while “abyss” is a thoughtful duo between Skoler and Blake, interpreting Skoler’s frantic run up the snow-covered red brick hill upon learning of his friend’s shocking loss.

The delicate “AppleHands” is for Nancy and warmly remembers an image of the two friends together, holding apples. Though he took his friend’s childhood things, Skoler didn’t know his friend’s hidden agenda in giving them, as many suicidal people give their belongings away, thus “Beneath Bequeath” refers to this and delivers one of the album’s most profound musical statements. Though there were signs in Bill’s demeanor and actions, nobody recognized them. Skoler’s duet with Ross, “harbinger,” gives thoughtful reflection on this.

The sullen “here. still.” reflects on Skoler’s lack of coping mechanisms as a teenager and wondering “Why am I still here?” After some time with therapy, Skoler had a vision in which his current self watched his younger self running up the red brick hill and discovering the newspaper where the sad truth was printed. Upon seeing his past reaction, Skoler embraced his younger self, finally giving himself the compassion and comfort he needed. This is reflected in the standout track, “Red Brick Hill.” After decades of torment, Skoler finally found a way to comfort himself, mainly in playing music, when he feels closest to Bill. “still. here.” is meant as a reminder that Skoler still lives in the moment and his friend still lives on in his sound. Grégoire Maret lent the piece an additional buoyancy through his dynamic harmonica playing.

Though the story behind Red Brick Hill comes from a place of great hurt, Harry Skoler has created a gorgeous and redemptive album of heartfelt music. Having hidden the story for over five decades, the process of ridding that weight has been essential to Skoler and he hopes that the outcome, namely the music of Red Brick Hill, will move people in their own ways.