The trouble with a number of contemporary jazz players and releases is that, while they’re all proficient in the language of the music itself, each seems more content to engage is simple, polite conversational small talk rather than finding anything truly interesting or engaging to say. Essentially these types of recordings become the musical equivalent of a dinner party amongst coworkers in which little of any real consequence is ever said. The fiery debates one would hope from schooled players seem a thing of the past as the rougher edges have apparently long ago been sanded to a smooth, high-gloss finish that lacks any real character, though is still somewhat pleasant to look at.
Such is the case with drummer Stanton Moore’s latest release, Conversations. Rather than engaging in any sort of compelling debates, the musical conversations contained herein are little more than polite pleasantries exchanged between friends. While the conversation does occasionally rise to a sub-boisterous level, these 11 tracks are all a bit too subdued and courteous in their discourse to leave any sort of a lasting impression. Like the most mundane, insignificant daily interactions with our peers, these tracks can be more or less pleasant and enjoyable in the moment, but after they’ve gone our minds have moved on to more compelling topics and conversations.
Album opener “Lauren Z”, composed by double bassist James Singleton, begins with a pleasant ostinato figure that begins the conversation. Seemingly out of nowhere, Moore’s drums then come tumbling into the mix, mingling with Singleton’s line until pianist David Torkanowsky’s fluid melodicism comes to dominate the mix, occasionally echoing Singleton, expanding on his bass-driven theme and then going off in an entirely new direction. As with polite conversation, there is a great deal of mutual acknowledgement that ultimately leads back to a more self-interested approach as each player looks to guide the conversation to suit their individual needs. Acknowledging one another, Torkanowsky then introduces something new and referential into the mix, playing a chorus chord progression that sounds more than a little bit borrowed from Ben Folds’ “Carrying Cathy”. Ultimately, it’s all pleasant enough and enjoyable in the moment but, after it’s over, one would be hard-pressed to recall any specifics.
On “Carnival”, Moore’s New Orleans background sneaks into the mix as he employs a shuffling beat, dancing across the snare before being joined by Torkanowsky and Singleton’s rather jaunty statement of the tune’s melody. As with much on the album, this is a light-hearted affair that, were it an actual conversation, would be an exchange of pleasantries and polite laughter, recalling recent trips or shared memories amongst friends. Continuing along much in the same vein, it isn’t until the Moore-penned “Tchefunkta” that things really begin to pick up. Here, perhaps several drinks in, the conversation becomes more animated with Moore showcasing his skills on the kit as he flutters away across the drums while Torkanowsky and Singleton engage in a staccato melody that, come the solo passages, find Singleton muscling his way into a few funky passages before the trio settles back into polite conversation.
Following several more mid-tempo numbers that serves more as soundtracks to a dinner party conversation than anything else, the group finally seems comfortable breaking the established mold somewhat and branching out with the blues-based, solo-heavy “In the Keyhole”. Here both Moore and Torkanowsky are given ample room to spread out and show off their respective chops in a more unrestrained setting, each pushing the next to greater heights as they in turn look to push the tempo. Not to be outdone, Singleton digs deep into his instrument for his solo passage, producing a fat, meaty tone as he explores the full range of his instrument. Seemingly pushed on by this, Torkanowsky looks to one-up his mates by employing a few interesting bars of heavily percussive string dampening that brings Moore and Singleton into a heavy groove as the track reaches its conclusion.
Exhibiting a new-found conversational confidence following the completion of “Into the Keyhole”, Moore and company keep things up for the last two tracks on the album, “Paul Barbarin’s Second Line” and “Prayer”. The former features a heavily New Orleans-indebted shuffle with odd accents here and there from Moore, while the latter is a slow-burning musical elegy that finds Moore using his drums like a gathering storm more than a rhythmic device, employing a more atmospheric, exploratory approach far more compelling than anything else displayed on Conversations.
Ultimately, Conversations represents the continuing sterilization of a once vibrant art form through the institutionalization of the medium. Colleges and universities have become factories for this type of music instead of fostering individuality and exploratory creativity, essentially putting out several generations worth of lounge and cocktail party acts who harbor secret desires to become something more than that which they’ve been made through their years of schooling. This could be a recording by any number of nameless, faceless, though ultimately talented jazz students well-versed in the language of the music, but content to merely engage in polite conversation. A pleasant enough affair from a trio of talented players, but in the end, unfortunately fairly forgettable.