Header Quote

"If you ain't got it in you, you can't blow it out."
— Louis Armstrong

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

John Scofield: A Moment's Peace

I really really like guitarist John Scofield. His start with Mingus and Chet Baker, his stint with post-comeback Miles, his fusiony bands in the early 1980s and then his killer string of discs on Blue Note and Verve: great stuff.

But when he became a kind of "jam band star" with the superfine disc A Go Go (with the trio Medeski, Martin, and Wood), things maybe soured a little. A bunch of his records after that seemed a little puffed up with affectation—not all of them, nope, but certainly Uberjam and its live follow-up, which seemed like lowest common denominator stuff for a guy who wasn't into coasting.

If Sco's career in the last dozen years has been up and down, then his new disc, A Moment's Peace, is up-up-up. Featuring a brilliant band (Larry Golding, Brian Blade and Scott Colley) and a wonderful mix of standards, pop songs and originals, this is a quietly daring recording.

The band’s treatment of standards is similarly quirky and strong throughout. “You Don’t Know What Love Is” is given a fresh take—with Goldings playing a pulsing kind-of-reggae offbeat figure throughout. Blade’s rhythm approach, however, works somewhat against that groove, with jazz accents and melodic rolls acting like a gentle version of what Elvin Jones might have played on this kind of tune. Goldings solos memorably over the “A” sections, setting up Sco for a fluid and sharp statement on the bridge.

Both “Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good to You” and “I Want to Talk About You” are played in a more conventional jazz style, but both are superb. “Gee Baby” catches Scofield in note-bending mood, like a weirder, subtler B.B. King. Every note is clear and tangy. The Eckstine tune moves Goldings over to piano, where he is just fine. Colley comes through in the mix more completely, letting the partnership with Blade shine at mid-tempo. As Scofield tackles the tougher harmonic path on “Talk About You”, the rest of the band sets up beautiful polyrhythms behind him. Now, this is no jam band in the popular sense, but the group dynamics and sense of play here are outstanding. Everyone in the band is cooking, but there isn’t a cliché in sight.

This is a band that is exceptional at setting a mood. Blade’s mallet work combines with Golding's piano to prepare Sco for a lovely reading of “Throw It Away”, a tune by Abbey Lincoln. Carla Bley’s “Lawns” gets a treatment that is quietly warm, with just a hint of strut in its step. And several Scofield originals are typically hard to get out of your head.

Maybe one of finest jazz records of the year, A Moment's Peace makes John Scofield seem a little less jammy and whole lot relevant and cool.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Farmers by Nature: Out of This Worlds Distortions

There is extreme playfulness in the bloodline of the trio Farmers by Nature: Craig Taborn on piano, William Parker on bass and Gerald Cleaver's drums. “Sir Snacktray Speaks” puts together a jabbing little jig from Taborn’s piano with an aching set of held bowed tones on Parker’s bass to generate a smiling theme. Then Cleaver takes over for a cluttered drum lead that scampers over a Parker pizzicato line. Then Taborn reenters, with a moody set of locked-hand chords, which sets up Parker to return to his bow for some down-home fiddle figures.

If it’s a lovely ballad you hanker for, then the opener, “For Fred Anderson” (a reference to the recently passed Chicago free tenor player), is a haunting, lovely theme. Taborn rings his keys with the sustain pedal down, getting a series of beautiful overtone resonances—a bed of stunning sound over which Parker plays very quiet bowed tones. The texture of this performance is spare and transparent, but Cleaver thickens it with subtle cymbal and percussion work.

The title track of Out of This World’s Distortions may be its highlight. Parker begins with a stately plucked melodic over pulsing cymbals. Taborn eventually enters with a set of sculpted rising patterns that are not the theme as much as a framing accompaniment. Over time, this balanced conversation draws you in, seeming to ask a million questions without providing obvious answers. You might listen to it 10 times, concentrating on different elements each time.

Read my full review of the recording HERE.

Each of these performances makes the case that “free jazz” is not a forbidding mess but rather an open plain of possibilities. Farmers by Nature is a band that takes seriously its mission to communicate to listeners, even though there is not a compromise in sight. The music is not appealing because it is familiar but because it sounds grounded, rooted, in basic patterns and in a connection to emotion.

Craig Taborn, William Parker and Gerald Cleaver move as one on this record. And if you give the music half a chance, you move with them.

Monday, September 19, 2011

A Dear John Letter to Jazz: To Hell with Loving You

Well, here it is: an announcement of intention. A decision, long mulled over. A cry for help in the lonely jazz night.

Why be faithful to jazz?  What has she ever really done for me?  Who's she running around with on the side?  When people see me, then think of her, what's really going on in their heads?

Well, I'm done.

My resignation, of a sort. Read the kiss-off RIGHT HERE.

A love affair, ended, and then . . . ?

Friday, September 9, 2011

Ornette Coleman: Something Else!

Every revolution has to start somewhere, and often the beginnings are not particularly unsettling.  That was certainly the case with Ornette Coleman and his "free jazz" style.  Or was it?  At the time, people reacted to Ornette as if he had taken a poop in his horn and set it on fire.

Looking back at his first album Something Else! (read my full PopMatters review HERE), it seems like Ornette was just a slightly ornery bebopper with a loose sense of intonation.  It sounds pretty mainstream.  The themes are spirited and tonal, and the whole enterprise certainly swings like mad.  In the original liner notes, Ornette states: “I think that one day music will be a lot freer”. Even the artist did not think it was there yet.

Pianist Walter Norris and bassist Don Payne are simply playing bebop—just listen to their solos on “Angel Voice” and you will hear utterly conventional bop playing of the late ‘50s. And Billy Higgins’ drumming, while fluid and simpatico with Coleman in every moment, swings in conventional time. It is notably less “out” than the work of, say, Max Roach or Art Blakey from the same era.  Don Cherry on "pocket trumpet" is also playing bebop, but he is closer to Coleman in concept. His long solo on “Alpha” is a clear balance. On the one hand, Cherry crackles with licks that run across the harmonies, just as if he were Kenny Dorham. On the other hand, there is a raggedness to his tone in places, and he has developing a way of abstracting the harmonies without really playing “wrong” notes.

The leader, however, is already free on his solos. Not only does Coleman use an off-putting and highly vocalized tone, but he tends to play flat in ways that makes all his notes sounds like blues tones. Then, when actually selecting notes and building phrases, he does not necessarily follow the chord patterns that Norris and Payne are playing. On “The Blessing”, which is a wonderful and attractive theme over the “I’ve Got Rhythm” chord changes, Coleman’s line is significantly in conflict with the first pattern. On “Alpha”, Coleman sounds a good bit like Eric Dolphy in the way he follows his own sense of vocal patterns down interesting melodic allies.

Listening to the whole package in 2011, it's clear that there was, in fact, a revolutionary player and thinker leading this enterprise.  He just didn't have his concept full actualized yet, and his bandmates weren't quite on board.  A mere year or so later, he would have Charlie Haden on bass and eventually Ed Blackwell on drums, dropping the piano.  The revolution—though lovely and lyrical in many places—would arrive.

But it started here.