[23 May 2012]
Man, this band is cookin’! I know that may be a clichéd jazz word, but it’s the only tern that properly describes this album by saxophonist Kenny Garrett. This program of original tunes is played with fire and verve by Garrett’s working band, and it steams—it swings—it just cooks. That’s the right—the only—word.
Oddly enough, jazz hasn’t produced enough of these records lately. Seeds from the Underground boasts the sound of a tight-as-a-glove small jazz group, one that has played together for a while and knows how to let the sparks fly. Every tune here is an opportunity for ecstasy. Every solo tells a story. Fireworks or feeling are where every sequence is heading. This is straight-ahead jazz with the emotions turned up.
The sound of this band is generous. The Venezuelan pianist Benito Gonzalez is a maximalist, fusing plenty of world rhythms with his massive post-bop jazz chops, sounding occasionally like Herbie Hancock and more often like McCoy Tyner, but always like a young monster. Nat Reeves plays fat-toned acoustic bass, and Ronald Bruner is splashy and vibrant on drums. Then most tracks add Rudy Bird on percussion, who blends integrally with the jazz vibe, not seeming merely tacked on like too many percussions on straight-ahead dates. And, finally, several tracks add to the melodic ensemble some (mostly) wordless vocals by Nedelka Perscad—a great, soaring sound.
Not that Seeds from the Underground is all up-tempo. Nope. But even the slower songs, the non-cookers if you will, go for the jugular. “Ballad Jarrett” is, of course, inspired the great pianist Keith, and it is an intensely melodic exercise in simmering emotion—a down-tempo but smoldering composition that gains power from the way it holds back any sense of explosion. Also intense is “Detroit”, written for Garrett’s hometown and for an early mentor, Marcus Belgrave. Garrett plays both piano and alto, accompanied only by a set of harmonized vocal “ohs” and the subtle popping and rotation of an LP spinning beneath a turntable needle. It’s a beautifully melancholy melody, played very simply (no drums, no bass, no groove) and never expanded on through improvisation. In essence, it suggests a purity of feeling and a simplicity that few jazz records get to advance directly. Only in the next-to-last bar is there a cry of raspy emotion from a voice—and it’s perfect.
More typical, however, are the up-tempo workouts on Seeds. “J. Mac” (for Jackie McLean) is a rollicking modal tune that features thundering piano chords and a straight-ahead swinging feel. Garrett takes the first solo, and it is plain that he is charging up the hill at full speed, headed for the summit. As usual, the leader’s tone is pungent in the low register and squawking and raspy heading into the upper octave—in short, delicious. The solo builds to a peak of longer held notes, then it reloads into swirls that spin even higher. It is exhilarating. Or check out the opener, “Boogety Boogety”, with Bird percolating out front in a hip Latin groove that positively screams “Happiness!” Gonzalez’s solo here dodges and dances with smooth daring until it rises up on a series of upper register tremolos and fizzles back to the melody. Tasty.
“Du-Wo-Mo” (for Ellington, Woody Shaw, and Monk) has an off-kilter melody, as you might imagine, that lurches over of a thumping pedal-tone groove until the solos usher in straight swing. Again, Garrett’s solo takes its time but revs up higher and higher over time—worrying certain motifs, climbing tonally, getting more raw in tone over time. The guy simply understands that jazz improvising requires storytelling.
“Laviso, I Ban” is based on some hip Guadaloupean rhythms, and it finds Garrett playing a very understated role on the main theme. Gonzalez is totally at home here, and he takes the strong first solo. But when Garrett enters for his turn, he’s on it too, this time playing a series of very quick, boppish phrases that slither through the chord changes like an asp. It’s a fitting ending for the collection: quick, burbling with rhythm, the various players all blending as if on the bandstand, and you, the listener, decidedly along for the ride.
Seeds from the Underground is not Kenny Garrett’s best record—he’s been around since the mid-1980s and has made a consistently solid string of records include several that aim higher than this one—and Garrett almost always achieves his goals. But Seeds is so satisfying because it is meat and potatoes jazz from a real working band and from a leader who never gets cute or pulls punches.
This is driving, cooking jazz—old school if you will. And that’s never been easy, even if the greats make it seem so.