The third release from a free jazz cooperative piano trio featuring Craig Taborn, Gerald Cleaver and William Parker
The cooperative free jazz piano trio, Farmers by Nature, excels at constant conversation. When jazz started to turn away from conventional bebop harmony in the late 1950s and early 1960s, improvisors started, also, to avoid taking turns playing the lead in a round robin of solos over the harmonic structure of the composition. Musicians such as Ornette Coleman didn’t exactly shun this practice, but they were open to less structured forms in which the players all “soloed at the same time” — an oxymoron, I suppose, but the idea was for the music to reach for coherent collective improvisation.
The practice wasn’t all that radical. Collective improvisation was a staple of the New Orleans style, with trumpet, clarinet and trombone all wailing on a tune at the same time, though in fairly prescribed roles. More mainstream players of the 1960s were embracing this concept too. Pianist Bill Evans famously said that his trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian was trying to do this and, a decade later, Joe Zawinul make the same claim for the fusion band Weather Report. In practice, however, collective improvisation was still rare and more likely encouraged by the “free” bands that had a higher tolerance for dissonance.
Farmers by Nature — the leaderless trio of Craig Taborn (piano), Gerald Cleaver (drums), and William Parker (bass) — comes quite close to an ideal of collective improvisation, particularly because they collectively improvise not just “solos” but all their compositions. Love and Ghosts is their third release, two live dates from 2011 concerts in France. Each “song” is invented on the spot. “Aquilo”, recorded in Marseille and clocking in at over 16 minutes, does not sound like “All the Things You Are” or “Happy Days are Here Again” — it is a mysterious improvisation that begins with a high, bowed statement on the bass and shifts over to an impressionistic piano part that melds with Parker’s bass in the early minutes, all while Cleaver colors and accents the proceedings with his cymbals and toms. It is curiously, truly beautiful, but it is not a “song” that has been notated or that could be played again by this trio or any other. It is a process of creation more than it is a repertory “piece”.
The question, then, about this recording or most any other set of compositions that is collectively improvised, is whether the players excel at conversation. Do they create well together? Is the interplay amongst them beautiful, thrilling, compelling, satisfying? The evidence on Love and Ghosts points to YES on every count.
The piano inevitably carries a heavy load in a trio such as this — it’s an instrument that can’t escape having melodic, harmonic and rhythmic importance. Craig Taborn has the skill, ambition and imagination to stand up to the scrutiny. Most listeners first heard him when he was playing with saxophonist James Carter, a virtuoso saxophonist who needed a trio with sure technique and a willingness to fly. Taborn fit the bill and gave those early records a voice to balance Carter’s. Since then, Taborn has tended to play with less obvious structure in various contexts, but to play such that his improvising always seems to have a sturdy skeleton at its core. When he is cut loose without a set harmonic pattern or a strong, predetermined melody, he still seems to have a compass within his playing, a sense of direction, a drive to take us toward a feeling.
In pursuit of feeling, Taborn liberally uses both “inside” harmony and dissonance. As a pianist “free” of standard harmonic rules, he still finds many uses for strong major chords, pretty major sevenths, open-sounding “6” chords or knotted clusters built nevertheless around a flatted note in a chord’s upper reaches. Entering after the long opening bass solo on “Seven Years In”, for example, he starts with pretty high melodies that turn into a rambling piano groove in the mid-range that has a clear tonal center — something so fun to hear that Keith Jarrett might have crafted it but also unpredictable enough that its eventual disintegration into more freedom seems like part of a design from the start, a cool amping up of energy, a plan to start from a tonal launch pad and ascend into a musical stratosphere of energy.
Gerald Cleaver is a “free” drummer whose approach also includes wide swathes of traditional jazz technique and style. He can craft a conventional funk or swing section that maintains tempo and builds tension, no doubt, but he also plays best when a groove needs to maintain a rubbery openness to change, syncopation, or even erratic change. Cleaver can maintain steady time on one part of his kit while playing a steady — but different — time on another part. Then, on top of that, he can comment on these times using yet a third tool. In these moments, sure, he might be taking his own specific “solo” (as in the final minutes of “Seven Years In”), but the conversation is still happening, just with a slightly adjusted emphasis.
One of the things I love about Love and Ghosts are the moments when Cleaver shifts away from his drum kit to play other percussion instruments such as a chiming instrument (a xylophone?) at the start of “The Green City” (recorded in Besancon). Cleaver’s dialogue with Taborn here is delicate and endearing, words that fit free jazz too little of the time.
William Parker exhibits the strengths of Taborn and Cleaver as well, an outside but inside man, a ferocious swinger when he wants to be and a man unhooked from convention too. No matter what he is up to, Parker has a big sound and a nose for patterns that let your ears attach to the music. On the ambling (aimless?) start to “Bisanz”, Parker is an anchor, but not just because he plays in a lower register. Rather, he finds the lines that connect rhythm to theme, he puts little slices of Motown into the wild explorations of his teammates. And when I say that Parker — the native New Yorker — adds Motown to the music of Detroit natives Cleaver and Taborn, that’s saying something.
There remains something slightly contradictory about the idea of recording this music, music that was completely improvised for a live audience, and then dissecting it in a review. Maybe there’s something contradictory in buying such a recording to listen to it, repeatedly, in your home. The music was born of the moment, and maybe it means the most in the moment as it’s being created. So, see these guys in concert if you can.
But, on other hand, even the most abstract and “free” jazz is connected to more than a moment. It is born of a long history of playing and living, a whole history of this country and this culture, one that’s personal to these three amazing musicians and also universal to those of us who share the space with them. It’s terrific to hear this kind of music, with its not-obvious but still emotional beauty, coming out of a culture that seems so constrained and plastic at times. Farmers by Nature, they call themselves, cultivating the real stuff from the ground up. I buy it.