[13 May 2012]
Saxophonist Kenny Garrett’s last studio album, 2006’s Beyond the Wall, is easily one of the most enjoyable jazz releases of the last decade. Soulful, warm, and accessible, that effort deftly toed the magical tightrope between post-bop and the avant-garde. It’s true that Beyond the Wall didn’t push any of the boundaries Garrett may have purported or offer many new ideas, but its top-notch performances, infectious melodies, and propulsive rhythms resulted in something truly special.
Garrett has been anything but idle in the six years since Beyond the Wall‘s release. He has toured with his own post-bop and funk ensembles; he has recorded and played countless shows with a jazz all-star group, the Five Peace Band; and he has released the stopgap Sketches in MD, a live recording of new and old originals featuring Pharoah Sanders.
Seeds from the Underground, Garrett’s first studio effort in a half-dozen years and his second release on the Mack Avenue label, has been billed as a return to form with Garrett again fronting an acoustic quartet and playing the Coltrane-influenced jazz with which he’s made a name for himself. Fortunately, the album does not disappoint. In fact, Seeds is Garrett’s most cohesive release to date, a sprawling work that serves as a nice summary of his impressive career.
A tribute album of sorts, each of Seeds’ ten original compositions is dedicated to one of Garrett’s influences. “Boogety Boogety”, a song inspired by Garrett’s father, and “Du-Wo-Mo” (shorthand for Duke Ellington, Woody Shaw, and Thelonius Monk) are prime examples of the ebullient, thoughtful post-bop with which Garrett burst onto the jazz scene nearly 30 years ago. It’s clear from these two compositions that he’s come a long way since his 1984; the arrangements are tighter and the solos are more lyrical.
“J. Mac” (a nickname for the legendary saxophonist Jackie McLean), with its lightning chord changes and muscular solos similar to “Giant Steps”, shows the extent of Coltrane’s influence on Garrett’s songwriting.
“Wiggins”, written for Garrett’s high school band director, is a smooth funk jam akin to the work offered by Garrett’s recent electric touring ensembles. Its hypnotic rhythms come courtesy of the percussionist Rudy Bird, who, like Garrett, was a member of Miles Davis’s ensemble in the late 1980s. “Wiggins” showcases Garrett’s virtuosic chops on the saxophone. His solo paws and teases the song’s melody, seamlessly weaving hooky scale lines with cacophonous squawks that he surely lifted from Sanders’ bag of tricks.
One of the highlights on Beyond the Wall is the ethereal mid-album interlude “Tsunami Song”. Seeds provides a similar musical moment with “Detroit”, a bluesy modal dirge that divides the album nicely. Garrett’s horn sings out a breathy, serpentine melody. Pianist Benito Gonzalez, who has been a stalwart in Garrett’s touring band over the last six years, squeezes out soft block chords, underscored by vocalist Nedelka Prescod’s ghostly humming. And the gentle crackle of a spinning record is heard throughout. The lugubrious song could serve as the soundtrack to a funeral march.
As on Beyond the Wall, Garrett saves some of his best compositions for the final half of Seeds. “Ballad Jarrett”, one of the few slow tunes on the album, is more Rahsaan Roland Kirk than Keith Jarrett. But that turns out to be a good thing. Garrett’s soprano saxophone playfully dances long, churning out nursery rhyme melodies with a wink and smile. Unlike Kirk, however, nothing sinister lurks behind Garrett’s effortless playing.
“Welcome Earth Song” is another highlight. A toe-tapping combination of gospel and soul jazz, the song has the album’s catchiest melody—the titular refrain sung in unison by the entire band—and contains the album’s most memorable solo work courtesy of Gonzalez. His bluesy solo, reminiscent of Mulgrew Miller’s work on Beyond the Wall, opens with a series of trills, vibrating along with the supple groove laid down by bassist Nat Reeves and drummer Ronald Bruner. Then, Gonzalez’s right hand begins carving out melody from half-scales that ripple up and down like waves, his left hand filling the open spaces with fits of harmony. It’s a blissful moment on an album that’s filled with them; it’s proof that post-bop is alive and kicking; and it’s what separates good jazz from great music.
Overall, Seeds has all of the immediacy and energy found on Beyond the Wall. It also is remarkable for its tremendous breadth, expertly touching on nearly all of the styles Garrett has embraced in his impressive musical career. It’s a sure bet for fans of post-bop jazz and beyond.