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

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.


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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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