Honest-to-goodness musical talent is a powerful thing. It’s like a wave, coming at you any way it can, leaking under doorways and into your ears. And, like a wave, great musical talent lifts you to closer to the sky. James Carney has it.
Green-Wood is Carney’s fourth jazz album and his first since moving from Los Angeles to Brooklyn in 2004. The winner of 1999’s Thelonious Monk International Composers Award, Carney is not the latest Young Lion Jazz Cat — he got his BFA in jazz piano from CalArts in 1990 (studying under professors Charlie Haden, James Newton, and John Carter, among others) and has gigged, composed, taught (at Eastman, NYU, Ithaca, and Williams, just for example), and played all over. Maybe it’s more fair to say that Carney is a composer and pianist whose talent is suddenly and irresistibly coming alive. Green-Wood is an electro-acoustic revelation — a set of arrangements and performances that renew jazz from within and from without. Both fun and instructive to absorb, the latest from James Carney is best new jazz of 2007.
Green-Wood sets a four-piece horn section against a nimble rhythm section fronted by the composer. Peter Epstein (soprano sax), Ralph Alessi (trumpet), Tony Malaby (tenor sax), and Josh Roseman (trombone) are a cream-of-the-crop horn section — the former pair conspirators from Carney’s CalArts days, the latter two among the hippest of New York downtown blowers. Carney plays acoustic piano, Rhodes, and old school analog synths, with Chris Lightcap (acoustic bass) and Mark Ferber (drums) in grooving accompaniment. Utilized as a mini-big band, the group sounds orchestral in its range of colors, textures and lines.
But, putting aside technicalities of arrangement and writing (which technicalities Carney seems to be a master of), this band plays adventurous, loose-limbed jazz that is deeply informed by contemporary music from beyond the jazz wall. This is not to call it “jazz fusion” as that term was understood originally (that is, rock played by jazz musicians or jazz tunes played in a rock/funk style). Rather, this is modern, improvised music that organically draws on the composer’s natural feel for a whole variety of styles associated both with jazz and popular music. For example, “The Poetry Wall” builds layers of sound atop a funky 8/8 time, with Ferber and Lightcap playing the kind of dancing, syncopated groove that might have been played by Stevie Wonder in the 1970s. That groove, however, is not set up as a danceable funk but as a polyrhythmic canvas on which Carney can paint a complex landscape. He populates this world with both electric and acoustic keyboards, depending on how he wants the light to slant through the trees, and uses the horns in smooth, stacked harmonies, in counterpoint, in growled or swirling improvisation — all of it unpredictable and plastic, a moldable world of sound.
In some places, this music embraces the sonic liberation of “free jazz”. On the opener, “Power” (one of two tunes commissioned to accompany a silent film), Tony Malaby plays a squeaky-free dialogue with Carney’s synths and Ferber’s kit. Slowly, the other horns and bass enter until the group has established a new-century Dixieland sound — which suddenly resolves into a unison lick and series of horn punches. These melodies are not “hummable” in the show tune sense, but they tend to be built from blues fragments and hip licks that Carney inverts, repeats, and otherwise plays with. When the proper solos begin, it is never a matter of cats simply blowing over the changes. Rather, the rhythm section is given specific patterns and riffs to play beneath Ralph Alessi’s inventions.
In other places, the music is even more explicit about embracing pop sounds. “Smog Cutter” starts with a rubbery bass line that could have been written by Herbie Hancock in 1972 — indeed if there is one great band the JC group recalls, it is Hancock’s Mwandishi Sextet. Among more recent analogues, the group can occasionally recall one of Keith Jarrett’s quartets in how it incorporates open folk sounds or Steve Coleman’s MBASE groups in how it daringly cuts up time.
Just as often, however, Carney and friends are contemplative and dark. “Shame” builds funereal textures of horns and synths into a fog of harmony. “In Lieu of Crossroads” keeps the horns in low blend, playing with the acoustic piano, before giving way to a bass solo that eventually invites back atmospheric commentary from Roseman, Alessi, Malaby, and Epstein. “It’s Always Cold When You’re Leaving” begins with a snappy opening, the horns echoing the counterpoint of Carney’s two hands, then gives way to a remarkably free and moody solo piano section. Though Carney presents himself as a composer and arranger, his playing is rich with imagination and play — as if Jaki Byard and Don Pullen had spent much time fashioning a single successor to their work.
There are many brilliant young pianists in jazz today, and many have experimented with electric/acoustic approaches to the new century’s music. Jason Moran, Uri Caine, Matthew Shipp, and Brad Mehldau are just four names. But James Carney deserves to be squarely among them. His tidal wave of a new album, Green-Wood, is a minor masterpiece if not even greater than that. Its melodies, grooves, and bravery should easily buoy the music into tomorrow.