PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Music

James Carney Group: Ways and Means

The second brilliant outing from this composer and pianist, demonstrating how jazz can point forward with its history intact.


James Carney

Ways and Means

Label: Songlines
US Release Date: 2009-07-14
UK Release Date: 2009-07-13
Artist website
Amazon
Amazon
iTunes

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.

Ellingtonian.

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.

9

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Music

Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.

Books

The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.

Books

'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.

Music

1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.

Film

'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.

Music

The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.

Music

Mary Halvorson Creates Cacophony to Aestheticize on 'Artlessly Falling'

Mary Halvorson's Artlessly Falling is a challenging album with tracks comprised of improvisational fragments more than based on compositional theory. Halvorson uses the various elements to aestheticize the confusing world around her.

Music

15 Overlooked and Underrated Albums of the 1990s

With every "Best of the '90s" retrospective comes a predictable list of entries. Here are 15 albums that are often overlooked as worthy of placing in these lists, and are too often underrated as some of the best records from the decade.

Books

'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.

Music

20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.

Film

Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.

Film

The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.

Television

Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).

Music

Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.