The James Carney Group—with just two brass, two reeds, and a rhythm section—is an Ellington band for the new millennium. This, I suppose, makes Carney, the pianist and composer, a New Duke.
I exaggerate not.
Ways and Means follows 2007’s Green-Wood as a second stunning success of complex composition and compelling improvisation. The first was partly written as music to accompany a film, and it had the sound of storytelling: it did not simply spell out a melody, slather on the improvised solos, then repeat itself. Rather, Carney set up themes, counter-themes, textures and motifs, all of which were arranged to maximize drama and surprise. You could not, if you will, take your eyes off it. Additionally, Carney showed a distinct knack for layers of sound: electric and acoustic, high and low, improvised and written.
Ways and Means reinforces all of these strengths and then some. It was conceived by Carney as a full-length piece of musical cinema, containing sonic drama, conflict, and imagery. It uses even a wider range of band textures and juxtapositions. And it goes even further in exploiting a brilliant band of creative improvisers. Carney emerges from this latest effort not just as a pioneer, but also as a magician. He makes bracing new jazz into a pleasure and not just a bitter pill. Like Ellington several generations ago, Carney makes vanguard art that goes down with sensual pleasure.
It is typical of Ways and Means, for instance, that the first tune, “Nefarious Notions”, contains a long exposition of its theme, prominently featuring Ralph Alessi’s trumpet and Peter Epstein’s soprano saxophone, but follows that with solos by the other horns—Josh Roseman on trombone and Tony Malaby on tenor saxophone. The stop-start feeling of the theme generates a slinky kind of groove, but Malaby plays over a rhythm section that slowly breaks down into freedom, with Carney’s piano growing increasingly impressionistic. Then Roseman gets a legitimate funk feeling over which to play. As the theme returns, Carney gilds the final phrase with a chiming glockenspeil line—which is notable because this same glock device appears in the next tune, “Squatters”, playing in unison with the trumpet. Thus, Carney connects the songs into a flowing suite.
This canny manipulation of similarity and difference is what makes Ways and Means so cinematic and so riveting. Because “Squatters” begins with acoustic piano playing a role similar to the one it played in “Nefarious Nation”, we don’t expect the first solo to be Carney on a dirty/heavily reverbed Fender Rhodes, which then continues as the accompaniment below Epstein’s wormy, free-form soprano. When Alessi gradually takes over on trumpet, the acoustic piano returns via a melted-away rhythm. The sense that you are moving with the musicians over a changing landscape is palpable.
Added to the arsenal of possibilities this time around is the tool of genuine collective improvisation. With such a brilliant band (additionally, Chris Lightcap is on bass and Mark Ferber is on drums), Carney trusts them to create three instant compositions, each strategically placed in the program and each under four minutes: focused tone poems that are framed by their context in the whole. “Champion of Honesty” emerges as a forest at dawn, a dialogue of muttered voices, both natural and metallic, slowly building to day. It is followed by the composition “Onondaga”, which uses a pastoral analog synthesizer to set up a brooding ballad theme, announced by trombone and arco bass in harmony, Carney playing like a drunken sparrow around the edges. The forest remains present, which leads into the next improvisation, “The Business End”.
Also new to Carney’s arsenal this time are passages—the start of “Onondaga” and also the opening to “Fullout”—that move more like classical music than like jazz. While the septet’s instrumentation assures that this never sounds like some third-stream experiment gone wrong, it is refreshing to hear a contemporary jazz project that is confident enough to draw on classical tropes as much as rock or funk elements.
If Ways and Means sounds too impressionistic and gauzy for you, then know that Carney paints in primary color too. “Legal Action” begins with a buzzing, aggressive, and precise synth line behind which Ferber plays hard and driving, the line then picked up by the horns. Midway through Malaby’s solo, the synth reemerges with growls and squeals dueling with free jazz saxophone, and then the synth runs a quick unison with Carney’s piano before the acoustic takes over for a solo. The closer, “Gargoyles”, begins with the kind of melodic piano work you might expect from Ben Folds or Bruce Hornsby, creating a modern instrumental pop sound that leads to Carney’s finest solo of the outing. That the journey ends with the whole band grooving in perfect consonance is just right: this is a group that has been carefully balanced and perfectly directed, with personalities emerging but a collective identity becoming clear.
That said, the James Carney Group is no dance band, and radio broadcasts around the nation will not be featuring “Pow Wow” or “Squatters” for the pleasure of millions—which is a shame. Jazz today is art music, and as such it is inevitably a minority taste. But James Carney makes the case that jazz remains an art that is both up-to-the-minute and bracing, a form that could hold your attention like Slumdog Millionaire while still enriching you inside.
With artists like Carney at the helm, who knows? The jazz renaissance seems always at hand.