A state-of-the-art jazz saxophonist tackles tango and swamp music. Who says jazz all sounds the same?"
Reed player and composer Ted Nash is a great example of the new mainstream in jazz. Its central trait -- it's not so mainstream anymore.
Mr. Nash started playing early and had gigged with Lionel Hampton by the time he was 16. He can play bop and swing (his first record was on Concord), and he can go outside the chord changes too. He plays straight-ahead with the Lincoln Center crowd, but he's written for "double quartet" (jazz plus strings) and now records for Palmetto and hangs with Jazz Composers Collective cats. On any given disc, well, it's your bet what bag you'll find him in. That is the impressive state of mainstream jazz today: eclectic, open, and fully able.
La Espada de la Noche finds Mr. Nash, of all places, clenched in a tango. This is his band "Odeon", featuring violinist Nathalie Bonin, accordionist Bill Schimmel, Clark Grayson on low brass, and Matt Wilson's drums. Mr. Nash, as usual, is splitting time between tenor sax and clarinet (as well as bass clarinet and even alto flute), which uses its Argentine instrumentation to try on some Eastern European and N'awlins second line duds too. For all that, it's clearly a jazz record, with heady solos, driving rhythms, and daring interpretations of unusual material.
Things get cracking with a seriously tango version of Dizzy's "A Night in Tunisia". Seriously tango. Mr. Nash's tenor trades the "A" part of the melody with the vibrato-rich violin, then the accordion takes the bridge. The entire melody is rewritten to reflect a strict tango rhythm, to the point where -- by the musicians' plain intent -- you are supposed to chuckle. Then, for some solos, the tuba starts walking a bass line and you're back into jazz. It's the surprise of it all that delights you, even if it's a bit of a novelty.
The whole get-up seems to make more sense on "Sebago", where the melody and the style match easily and the band seems to be working more in concert with the material and itself. The drama isn't self-conscious, as if this was really an Argentine band rather than a gang of cleverer-than-thou jazz musicians. "Tico Tico" winks at you a bit again, but the swamp drive generated by Matt Wilson's percussion overcomes any self-consciousness here. And on the solos, everybody is landing serious punches. Most particularly, Mr. Schimmel lays down an accordion solo that suggests the vast range of the instrument. He swirls up and down his squeezebox keyboard like an avant-garde organist, playing the color and groove as much as the notes -- a mad polka Jackson Pollack, perhaps.
The biggest risk the band takes is clearly on the two movements of Rodrigo's "Concerto de Aranjuez". The first is rarely heard -- an uptempo flamenco piece that is highly orchestrated and never sets up conventional swing or groove sections. The first time I heard it, I found it off-putting. A second listen made me want to hear the entirety of the original again, as the writing is better than some folk music cliché. The band brings it together. The second movement is, of course, the one famously adapted by Gil Evans for Miles Davis's Sketches of Spain. Odeon plays it remarkably straight, not merely playing the opening theme as if it were another jazz head to be stated then blown on. Nash is on tenor and on flute, Wilson is coloring everything gorgeously, Gayton's brass is covering inside lines and harmony, then the accordion and violin take on the role of an entire orchestra. While I find the long accordion solo tedious and too-quiet, it is a successful and serious approach to the real piece -- not merely an aping of Miles.
But the second movement's respectful seriousness makes you yearn for the album closer. "Walk This Way" (not the Aerosmith song, kids) is a right snappy little blues number, and it lets this tango group get down in a more dirty style.
So, really interesting stuff, you might say. Wow. Today's jazz man is a true man of the world. 'Tis true. But is it what you want to hear?
There is a decent argument that this kind of exercise is irritating. Man, if I want to listen to some hip tango, I'll buy some Astor Piazzolla. 'F I want some N'awlins junk, I've got my Funky Meters. If I want to hear some jazz, then I want Ted Nash to swing for me. On the other hand, jazz stays vital by swapping DNA with other genres of music -- that's a fact. Hearing a jazz musician get his hands dirty with "Tico Tico" can only be a good thing, right?
In the end, the question is: How successful is Ted Nash at integrating these other musics into his own sound? Do he and Odeon make a satisfying, whole album of music that hangs together, that makes you want to hear more? After the first spin, I thought that the disc was spotty, and better when it stuck to its less "transformed" songs. After a second spin, I'm more convinced. This is neither a party trick nor a matter of jazz guys slumming among some world music. Nash and Odeon see and perform this music as part of a continuum, even if it is one you have to get used to. They hear the commonality amidst the music they've chosen here, even Dizzy's tune. They can play it all, but they choose to play it within a consistent context.
The question is -- are you willing to come along for the ride? What have you got to lose?