Bassist Matt Penman is one of those jazz musicians it is easy to overlook because it seems like he has played on 10,000 recordings with everyone of note, and he has always been perfect, purely supportive. Originally from New Zealand but a stalwart of the New York scene for 23 years, Penman has been releasing the occasional session since 2002 ( The Unquiet with Jeff Ballard, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Chris Cheek, and Aaron Goldberg—an impressive debut). Mainly, however, he has been a critical voice in the San Francisco Jazz Collective and James Farm (with Joshua Redman, Aaron Parks, and Eric Harland), and an essential ingredient on modern classics such as Aaron Parks’ Blue Note debut, Invisible Cinema.
So why shouldn’t Good Question, the latest from Penman, sound like a coming out party? The leader has some of his best friends along for the ride, an all-star group of contemporaries, particularly Mark Turner on tenor saxophone, Aaron Parks on piano, Will Vinson on soprano sax, and Nir Felder on guitar for good measure. More importantly, the writing for this date—all by Penman—is outstanding: compelling, melodic, fascinating, and balancing intricacy and direct pleasure.
The simple theme of “Blues and the Alternative Truth” demonstrates in a minimal way the clarity of Good Question. Featuring just the piano trio, this tune is built on a simple chordal melody that falls, rises, and falls again—gentle like a lullaby but insistent and repeated and then varied. Parks’s touch on acoustic piano puts you in the mind of so many classic piano trios, and the featured solo is for the leader, a lovely melodic statement that stays in the mid-register of the acoustic bass. Parks follows, delicately dancing, chiming, relaxed yet probing the theme.
The rest of Good Question is more layered with crisscrossing voices, in part due to Parks’s use of not only piano but also Fender Rhodes, vibes, and organ. On the opener, “Mr. Right”, Parks creates a full atmosphere with a cycling web of piano and vibes patterns and chimes that come into conversation with Oded Calvaire’s drums and the leader’s bass. The saxophone melody starts out as a slower contrast and then begins interweaving as well until the whole band is engaged. The bass joins the saxophone in octaves and, eventually, the sax briefly takes up the piano part. The composition is like an ingeniously constructed Swiss watch, incorporating environments for a bass solo and tenor solo, each of which is different yet related to the theme.
“Ride the Paper Tiger” is a feature for guitarist Nir Felder, starting as an old-school fusion workout pairing Rhodes and electric guitar in a speedy dialog that is matched by the drums. As is common with Penman’s tunes, however, it is not quite that simple. The groove is cut in half for Felder’s colorful, blues-flinging solo, with Parks playing thickly sustained Rhodes chords as the intensity goes from chill to frantic. Parks’s solo rides over a funky drum/bass groove that moves back into the original tempo before the head returns in a varied form.
“Fifths and Bayou” is a feature for Will Vinson’s delicately snaking soprano saxophone. This tune has busy Latin groove that is punched up by Rogerio Boratto’s percussion and a lively acoustic piano attack from Parks. Rhythm is the driving force on many of the tunes. “Meats” has a slow tempo but is moved forward by piano chords struck in even eighth notes for the full length. “Copeland” is constructed on a slow throb by piano and bass: a melancholy flow of melody that is derived from a classical-sounding theme that seems to (somewhat) reference composer Aaron (Copeland). The throb, however, never lets up, like a heartbeat. “Cave Life” is paced by a simple but ingenious Rhodes figure: a note punched twice in one octave, then twice an octave up, like a Morse code pattern that supports riveting melodic exploration, especially a written section for Turner and Penman, together.
The collection ends on a high note, with both Felder and Turner joining forces with the rhythm section on “Big Tent, Little Tent”. This is a more conventional slice of contemporary jazz, perhaps, with shifting time patterns, thrilling stops, and a groove that doesn’t “swing” as much as it mixes pulsing bass funk to push-pull drumming that feels elastic like jazz. It does not summarize the program as much as it simply challenges the fuller band to show their identities.
The only missing from Good Question, perhaps, is what we hear the most of in this very last performance—the sense that these improvisers are on a mission, that they are burning and ripping, that musical ideas are burgeoning as they encounter these tunes. In his comments on the recording, Penman writes that Good Question was a case of posing questions or presenting intriguing situations to the band, which they are answering, puzzling over. While the performances are fluent, beautiful, even ingenious, they smack more of artists crafting solutions or serving the larger structure logically than artists being inspired to heights in invention.
That is utterly okay. Jazz long ago stopped being an art form where the height of excellence meant brilliant individual soloists flying high, demonstrating virtuosity, overshadowing the tune with their extemporaneous brilliance. But that kind of scintillating playing still has a place as well, in some moderation. Matt Penman’s compositions are works of art, and the playing in service of them—especially that of the versatile and subtle Aaron Parks—is superb. The result is artful, shaded, intriguing, and worth your appreciation and contemplation. Your blood may not boil, but the work has other sumptuous rewards.