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.


James Farm: James Farm

Irresistible modern jazz—catchy but serious, grooving and swinging too.

James Farm

James Farm

Label: Nonesuch
US Release Date: 2011-05-26
UK Release Date: 2011-05-26

The complaint with modern jazz is that it’s more fun to play than to listen to. “It sounds like a bunch of guys practicing”, said a friend one time—and who could disagree? Scales being run, chops being shown off just because, too few stories being told.

The good stuff isn’t like that. Miles Smiles was abstract but as fiery and interesting as a Kandinsky canvas. Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage was like a stunning nature documentary that made you feel you were soaring over the Grand Canyon on a hang-glider. Ornette Coleman could make you feel like you were at the circus, and more recently Vijay Iyer and Jason Moran have made trio recordings that have felt like a new restaurants combining two different cuisines into something doubly delicious.

James Farm is a collective recording from four potent young jazz players that attempts—and utterly succeeds—at making instrumental jazz that is catchy and fun to hear while still offering serious pleasures in the originality of its compositions and the verve of its improvisations.

The band James Farm consists of saxophonist Joshua Redman, pianist Aaron Parks, bassist Matt Penman, and drummer Eric Harland. Redman was a young phenom in the early 1990s and has since led a series of bands that have concerned themselves with making the “jazz tradition” relevant to and mixed with more contemporary sounds. Each member of the rhythm section is also a leader and recording artist, but it may be most useful to note that this trio was a heart of Parks’ brilliant 2008 debut on Blue Note, Invisible Cinema. That recording superbly generated a grooving vocabulary for the new century’s jazz, working elements of hip hop rhythm and rock expressionism into a precise and dazzling jazz hybrid.

James Farm places Redman’s expressive tenor saxophone into this trio’s shimmering, exciting world. Using compositions from all four members of the group, James Farm sounds like another step—another leap—in the right direction. Each song establishes a scrambling, skittering rhythm that pushes and pulls in an exciting way. Harland almost never plays a “swing” beat, but he infuses the backbeats and sharp accents of modern rock and hip hop with a loose-limbed elasticity that is, nevertheless, pure jazz. Penman plays with economy and melody, and Parks continues his ascent: sounding just a little like Keith Jarrett at times, but more often playing with a jittery freedom that is all his own. His piano patterns dominate many of these tunes, and his sparse but dramatic use of a few other keyboards is smart and wise rather than cheesy.

On “Polliwog” (by Redman), for example, Harland’s clattering groove locks in with a Parks piano lick that is all repetitions and sharp syncopations. The saxophone melody adds to this with irregular figures that also act percussively. Penman’s “1981” builds saxophone lines and licks on a celeste over an insistent backbeat piano feeling. Once the solos begin, the band can play with the grooving feeling or it can play things looser. Either way, it’s exciting.

The mood is brooding on Parks’ “Chronos”, which places a creepy minor melody over a clash of irregular rhythms set up, again, by drum-like patterns on piano. Redman and Parks duel gently in counterpoint before a full-fledged piano solo flies up into the atmosphere only to find Redman waiting there for more reed work. Penman’s opener, “Coax”, has a similar piano ostinato that keeps things pulsing in an original manner.

Harland’s “1-10” is a strutting workout over a busy jazz-funk pattern, but the band has chosen a production style that feeds most of the instrumental sounds through a gauzy distortion. The improvisations here are slightly more harmonically free, and the sense of a band playing more on the edge is earned rather than just dialed up by the producer.

Several tunes are played for more beauty and rhapsody. “Unravel” is an attractive ballad by Parks, but his “Bijou” has a yearning lyricism that specifically engages with the kind of gospel chords and loping triple meter of Jarrett’s most likeable themes from the 1970s. Penman’s “Low Five” is a ballad that sets up Redman’s attractive playing on soprano sax, and Redman’s “Star-Crossed” is lovely long-form melody that slithers around a blues feeling with interest. At the halfway-point, however, this latter song suddenly rushes forward into a rocking double-time that is a as thrilling as it is unexpected.

While James Farm is not a flatly innovative recording, it is just the kind of thing that modern instrumental jazz needs these days. It continues an arc of superb discs by relatively young players who are finding ways for jazz to rise above the merely accomplished to become something that is emotional and compelling—and not just for aficionados but for listeners who might not listen to jazz as a habit.

If the music is to survive, that group ought to being growing. And James Farm, it seems, is a fine dose of fertilizer. Let it pour.


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.





Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.


Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.


'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.


ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.


The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.


Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


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.


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.


'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.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

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