John Lennon said “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” And while this statement is usually used as a metaphor for love, it seems particularly apt when it comes to great jazz. The vast majority of the world’s best jazz musicians aren’t famous. They aren’t playing at prominent jazz festivals in picturesque seaside villas or “premiere” urban music venues whose walls drip candid photographs of Monk, Mingus and Miles. No, for the most part, you’ll find these musicians in the background: giving masterclasses to distracted students; playing to half-hearted wedding attendees; or (sadly with less and less frequency) accenting table conversation at back-alley nightclubs and cafes. And so most great jazz doesn’t happen at the Newport Jazz Festival or the Village Vanguard or during a Blue Note recording session. It occurs at the anonymous places where you’ll find most great jazz musicians playing: solo gigs at the Holiday Inn lounge at the airport; a 1 a.m. trio set that unexpectedly (and serendipitously) turned into a duo when the drummer’s kid got sick and he had to leave early; the café where the band is snuggly sandwiched between the entrance and the espresso machine.
Now Was the Time, the new album from veterans Harvie S and Kenny Barron, captures the magic and intimacy of the great everyday jazz moment as experienced by the true working jazz musician and the most attuned jazz listener. It is filled with subtle moments of brilliance that would otherwise be lost in the shuffle of shopping bags or the bursts of conversation that accompany most jazz great performances. To further serve its cause as an unintentional ode to the anonymous jazz musician and typical great jazz moment, it turns out Now Was the Time was actually recorded back in 1986 and forgotten until Harvie S unearthed it recently and, thankfully, gave this session the light of day.
The album starts off with a playful version of Charlie Parker’s famous tune “Confirmation”. The musicians forego the traditional jazz idiom of playing the melody first as Barron begins the song with a bubbly solo that would make Art Tatum smile and will show young jazz listeners just where Brad Mehldau got some of his pizzazz. Harvie S takes over with a bluesy solo that ends with a quote from “Body and Soul”, a jazz standard, all too well known to the everyday jazz musician, which is covered beautifully later in the album.
Another highlight is the Harvie S-penned song “Take Your Time”, which is as soulful as anything either musician has ever done. Barron’s solos are reminiscent of Sonny Clark and Duke Jordan’s legendary Blue Note recordings.
The “everyday” quality of Now Was the Time is enhanced by its duet setting. Without a crackling snare drum or blaring horn, the musicians, with only piano and bass at their disposal, are forced to create tension through two of the most basic elements of music: harmony and rhythm.
Songs like Rodgers and Hart’s “Isn’t it Romantic?” and Arthur Altman and Jack Lawrence’s “All or Nothing At All” showcase Harvie S and Barron’s command of harmony and rhythm and exemplify why each musician is such an in-demand accompanist. Harvie S’s bass slithers through Barron’s solos while Barron’s piano voicings are a natural compliment to Harvie S’s bluesy phrasing.
The danger of recording a duet is that the two musicians often feel obliged to fill all the space normally occupied by a quartet or quintet. Harvie S and Barron only fall into this trap once, on the Wayne Shorter tune “Miyako”. The solos are less adventurous and the musicians sound like they are going through the motions at times, biding their time between chords. But these moments are few and far between.
The downside of having inadvertently created a tribute to the everyday jazz moment is that, like everyday jazz, the majority of Now Was The Time is bound to be lost on the casual listener, who will most likely dismiss its subtle harmonies and duet setting as mere background noise or mood music.
Nonetheless, while most new jazz releases seem to be watered down to cater specifically to the casual listener, it’s refreshing to hear jazz that, like everyday jazz, is aimed largely at the audience listening while the music is being created—in this case, the musicians themselves. Harvie S and Kenny Barron have created an album that will no doubt echo most loudly with their peers, true working jazz musicians, and those who recognize that great jazz moments “happen when you’re busy making other plans.”