The complaint with modern jazz is that it’s more fun to play than to listen to. “It sounds like a bunch of guys practicing”, said a friend one time—and who could disagree? Scales being run, chops being shown off just because, too few stories being told.
The good stuff isn’t like that. Miles Smiles was abstract but as fiery and interesting as a Kandinsky canvas. Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage was like a stunning nature documentary that made you feel you were soaring over the Grand Canyon on a hang-glider. Ornette Coleman could make you feel like you were at the circus, and more recently Vijay Iyer and Jason Moran have made trio recordings that have felt like a new restaurants combining two different cuisines into something doubly delicious.
James Farm is a collective recording from four potent young jazz players that attempts—and utterly succeeds—at making instrumental jazz that is catchy and fun to hear while still offering serious pleasures in the originality of its compositions and the verve of its improvisations.
The band James Farm consists of saxophonist Joshua Redman, pianist Aaron Parks, bassist Matt Penman, and drummer Eric Harland. Redman was a young phenom in the early 1990s and has since led a series of bands that have concerned themselves with making the “jazz tradition” relevant to and mixed with more contemporary sounds. Each member of the rhythm section is also a leader and recording artist, but it may be most useful to note that this trio was a heart of Parks’ brilliant 2008 debut on Blue Note, Invisible Cinema. That recording superbly generated a grooving vocabulary for the new century’s jazz, working elements of hip hop rhythm and rock expressionism into a precise and dazzling jazz hybrid.
James Farm places Redman’s expressive tenor saxophone into this trio’s shimmering, exciting world. Using compositions from all four members of the group, James Farm sounds like another step—another leap—in the right direction. Each song establishes a scrambling, skittering rhythm that pushes and pulls in an exciting way. Harland almost never plays a “swing” beat, but he infuses the backbeats and sharp accents of modern rock and hip hop with a loose-limbed elasticity that is, nevertheless, pure jazz. Penman plays with economy and melody, and Parks continues his ascent: sounding just a little like Keith Jarrett at times, but more often playing with a jittery freedom that is all his own. His piano patterns dominate many of these tunes, and his sparse but dramatic use of a few other keyboards is smart and wise rather than cheesy.
On “Polliwog” (by Redman), for example, Harland’s clattering groove locks in with a Parks piano lick that is all repetitions and sharp syncopations. The saxophone melody adds to this with irregular figures that also act percussively. Penman’s “1981” builds saxophone lines and licks on a celeste over an insistent backbeat piano feeling. Once the solos begin, the band can play with the grooving feeling or it can play things looser. Either way, it’s exciting.
The mood is brooding on Parks’ “Chronos”, which places a creepy minor melody over a clash of irregular rhythms set up, again, by drum-like patterns on piano. Redman and Parks duel gently in counterpoint before a full-fledged piano solo flies up into the atmosphere only to find Redman waiting there for more reed work. Penman’s opener, “Coax”, has a similar piano ostinato that keeps things pulsing in an original manner.
Harland’s “1-10” is a strutting workout over a busy jazz-funk pattern, but the band has chosen a production style that feeds most of the instrumental sounds through a gauzy distortion. The improvisations here are slightly more harmonically free, and the sense of a band playing more on the edge is earned rather than just dialed up by the producer.
Several tunes are played for more beauty and rhapsody. “Unravel” is an attractive ballad by Parks, but his “Bijou” has a yearning lyricism that specifically engages with the kind of gospel chords and loping triple meter of Jarrett’s most likeable themes from the 1970s. Penman’s “Low Five” is a ballad that sets up Redman’s attractive playing on soprano sax, and Redman’s “Star-Crossed” is lovely long-form melody that slithers around a blues feeling with interest. At the halfway-point, however, this latter song suddenly rushes forward into a rocking double-time that is a as thrilling as it is unexpected.
While James Farm is not a flatly innovative recording, it is just the kind of thing that modern instrumental jazz needs these days. It continues an arc of superb discs by relatively young players who are finding ways for jazz to rise above the merely accomplished to become something that is emotional and compelling—and not just for aficionados but for listeners who might not listen to jazz as a habit.
If the music is to survive, that group ought to being growing. And James Farm, it seems, is a fine dose of fertilizer. Let it pour.