Four top-shelf jazz musicians who are neighbors in the Hudson Valley of New York collaborate on a set of varied tunes that represent their neighborhood. Graceful but fragmented.
One of the cool little secrets about the jazz scene in New York City these days is that many of your favorite artists don’t actually live in the city. Once urban denizens who were shaping (and shaped by) the grit of the Brooklyn or lower Manhattan, they too get ground down and pine for fresh air. And lots now live a quick Metro North train ride from the city in the Hudson Valley. One time I got off the train in one of these gorgeous, semi-rural towns on my way to interview a pianist only to find small, Xeroxed copy of a poster advertising a small, local, outdoor concert featuring drummer Jack DeJohnette, keyboardist John Medeski and others.
Why don’t I live around here?
Now DeJohnette, Medeski, bassist Larry Grenadier, and guitarist John Scofield have made a record that captures this kind of a band and aims to bottle the Hudson Valley vibe and put it on record. And, fitting the scenery of that lush and peaceful part of the northeast, the music is varied, beautiful, and pleasantly loose. There’s not doubt that each player is a key individual voice, but here there is no cutting or competition — just a collective hang, a conversation, a musical picnic with good food that could come from almost anywhere in this abundant region.
The joy in collaboration is everywhere, but it’s particularly easy to here on the opening (title) tune, a long funky jam that is open and loose in the spirit of the Miles Davis early-‘70s music that DeJohnette played on. Medeski puts his Fender Rhodes through a ring modulator to get psychedelic colors, and Scofield teases bits of melody in conversation with the band. These guys know each other — neighbors. Scofield and Medeski have made a few recordings together and know how to talk back and forth. DeJohnette is the mayor of any jazz neighborhood you choose, with a resume that spans Miles, Keith Jarrett, Arthur Blythe, David Murray, Pat Metheny . . . Grenadier may be youngest, but he’s also the most flexible.
That said, this opening jam is the album’s least emblematic track. Though there are four original tunes, its five pop covers are the meat of Hudson. They’re not just any pop tunes, but ones specifically associated with the Hudson Valley for different reasons. Dylan and The Band — who famously worked and recorded in a pink rental home in West Saugerties, New York (in the heart of the Hudson Valley) — are represented with “Lay, Lady, Lay”, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, and “Up on Cripple Creek”. The first tune is lifted by a lilting reggae rhythm, Medeski’s old-timey organ sound, and an arrangement that emphasizes some cool punches from Scofield’s hiply tarnished guitar sound. “Hard Rain” combines a skipping jazz triple-meter with edgy keyboards from Medeski — a slightly fuzzed-out Rhodes and haunting organ voicings that meet at the crossroads as the guitar pulls blues licks out of the air. “Cripple Creek”, by contrast, is interpreted through New Orleans funk, with Medeski offering up Professor Longhair piano and Meters-y organ.
Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” is here because that mythic weekend of rain, music, and generational definition took play in the valley, and the band reads the tune as a moody, minor, modal exploration that both evokes the original and suggests that this song has legs as a modern standard. “Wait Until Tomorrow” retains the rhythmic hero-a-jerk that it had with Jimi Hendrix (though Hendrix did not play this one in his closing Woodstock set), but it develops as a more joyous jam here: with Medeski powering it on B3 and Scofield both respectful of a influence and more harmonically daring, to my ear.
Beyond these themed songs, there are two originals from Scofield and three DeJohnette. The former carry the guitarist's signature combination of catchy theme and rhythmic power: “El Swing” mixes a punchy Corea-esque figure with tasty walking swing, and “Tony Then Jack” is a swinging blues that features Medeski’s B3 in modern Jimmy Smith mode. DeJohnette contributes a closing “Great Spirit Peace Chant” that draws on the Native American history of the valley, once inhabited by Mahican and Lenape people, using drum, flutes, and voices. His “Song for World Forgiveness” is a languorous meditation that begins in free tempo and develops into a simply two-chord vamp over which Medeski and Scofield trade jammy enjoyment. “Dirty Ground”, composed by the drummer and pianist Bruce Hornsby, is little R&B groover with a hip vibe and a vocal by Jack DeJohnette himself.
When you’re done surveying the countryside that is Hudson, there’s a good chance you are charmed. It’s also a truly various landscape: not all jazz by any means, some world music, some Americana, a dose of jam band, and some real quirks. On some tracks, the magnificence of the musicians feels misdirected a bit. Larry Grenadier is a brilliant bassist for any music, but you don’t really relish his skill on the pure groovers here. DeJohnette is an eclectic talent, but his knack for polyrhythmic daring is hardly required by half the music here. Scofield and Medeski are most at home, perhaps, but the mixture is strange enough that I find myself wishing that they could stretch out more and not be forced from Hendrix to Joni to jazz to New Orleans funk.
If it were a meal, you wouldn’t call it leftovers but more of a pot luck picnic. Not every dish fits with every other dish, but you could nosh all afternoon on this blanket. And the chefs . . . magnificent.