Sam Bardfeld: The Great Enthusiasms

Publicity photo via Bandcamp

Violin, piano, and drums — playing jazz that arises from folk, rock, and roots traditions, but the "weird" avant-garde ones. Still, pointedly, Sam Bardfeld's music sings and moves with joy.

Sam Bardfeld is a beautiful and hard-to-write-about example of a jazz musician in 2017. First, the word "jazz" doesn't begin to capture him or even really identify him. Second, no other word comes any closer.

Sam Bardfeld

The Great Enthusiasms

(Brooklyn Jazz Underground)

Release Date: 29 Sep 2017

Bardfeld is a member of the Jazz Passengers, the idiosyncratic band that emerged in 1987 from a scene that was already challenging the definition of the music. He plays the violin, which means that he's already operating in jazz as a player rooted in an older tradition or wide of the modern tradition. And, of course, as a modern player in creative improvised music, he has operated beyond category from the start, playing with Anthony Braxton (Bardfeld is an alumnus of Wesleyan University, where Braxton long taught), working with the Red Clay Ramblers, recording and touring with Bruce Springsteen, and playing with a huge range of acts: Debbie Harry, Elvis Costello, Willie Colon, John Zorn, and, Steven Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra.

The music we expect from him, then, is not standards or bop or swing — it's the contemporary eclecticism that defines our musical era.

Bardfeld's 2005 recording on New Talent, Periodic Trespasses (The Saul Cycle) was whimsical and fantastic. Since then he hasn't released his own music, but a new set for trio called The Great Enthusiasms is here to remind us how good, how cheeky, and how serious Bardfeld can be.

The Great Enthusiasms is a collection of seven performances from a balanced trio: Bardfeld's violin, piano from the masterful Kris Davis, and Michael Sarin's drums. The band operates on the flank of the New Jazz — not tunes, chord changes, and solos but performances that are open-ended, harmonically and sonically daring. They are rooted, however, not in classical forms or jazz tradition as much as in the kind of roots music that Bardwell leans toward in his liner notes when he references "Weird America".

"Old Weird America" is a term coined by cultural critic Greil Marcus in his book The Invisible Republic (1997), which was about Bob Dylan, the Band, and the recording of the classic Basement Tapes. The idea is that amidst the great American folk traditions — black, white, blue(s), and whatever other color or constituency you may want to ascribe to the nation's cultures — there is a nativist avant-garde. And I think that gets at Bardfeld's sound as well as any other phrase.

Here, Bardfeld is teamed with two exceptional players from the New Jazz who can go in any direction required with no map. Their starting points and destinations are set by five compositions by the leader and two roots-rock classics: "Because the Night" (Springsteen/Patti Smith) and "King Harvest" (Robbie Robertson of the Band). All the tunes, however, have a down-home quality. Bardfeld's "Resignation Rag" is a syncopated joy, a hip squiggle of melody that tumbles down a hill while Sarin gets his parade rhythm on and Davis bumps bass notes and chuckles with her right hand. The violin and Davis's right hand fall into magical moments of unison, but mostly we get a counterpoint that sounds like a two people speaking at the same time while still making sense. Davis plays solo for a bit, sounding like ragtime that wanders off the path into modern introspection until the band catches her in a funky bass line and gets back to it. Fun.

"The 37th Time I Have Spoken" is also rootsy, but in a different way. It starts with Bardfeld strumming the strings, sounding like a mandolin. Davis adds an upper register melody at a whisper — the beginning of a chilling folk song of lamentation, it seems. But the tune develops: it becomes a blue fiddle tune, then a chattering piano solo, then a joyous tap dance among the whole trio, until it returns to its heartbreaking whisper.

The rock songs are, if anything, a bit more abstract. "Because the Night" begins with a piano pattern that is an off-kilter, blue version of the Springsteen-ian pattern, and then Bardfeld plays the verse as just one key phrase, repeated in different registers. You will recognize the pre-chorus, but then the band double (or triple)-times the chorus, zipping through it to return to the seductive piano part, now grown more mysterious, more insistent. The Band's "King Harvest" is straight-up funky, with Davis bumping low octaves during the verse, but the band insists on finding odd moments of stillness for most of the performance. Davis turns the song's signature keyboard part into a contemplative, almost religious moment.

The group does quite well. "Winner Image" is a ballad that develops an attitude. Bardfeld begins with a blues monologue that is exceptionally lyrical and sly, Sarin dancing on the cymbals lightly, inviting Davis to enter. Eventually, her line played in octaves, becomes the melody, and the whole band plays it, pops its moments of attack so that what started as a ballad has become insistent with momentum, and it even develops a groove for the piano solo.

Once your ears get used to the unusual instrumentation (no bass) and the tendency of the band to fragment for unaccompanied solos or to shift moods within tunes, this becomes remarkably "easy" avant-garde music. That is, "The Great Enthusiasms" starts to feel like a hopping blues theme. Sure, Kris Davis is prone to dissonances as she comps, but if you can resist the momentum of her left hand locking in with Sarin, then you're steelier than I am. Bardfeld is unafraid to play the weird notes, but he plays them with bracing tone and clarity. "Fails While Daring Greatly" sounds like an elegant couple, walking arm in arm at night after having one too many — off-beat but elegant, in stride but askew. The band makes it swing the way Thelonious Monk made things swing: utterly but differently.

Bardfeld's liner notes are fascinating, tracing his own youth, from listening to Richard Nixon resigning the presidency to the vibrant music culture of New York in the 1970s. The recording is a reaction to the Trump presidency in part, but it always seems — to me, at least — like an act of joyful defiance rather than any negativity or defeat. Bardfeld sees absurdity and humor in places I might not; he finds odd beauty in all sorts of musical corners.

The Great Enthusiasms is a slice of New Jazz that feels casual and accomplished at once. That kind of artistry comes from artists who have worked long and hard at making it look easy. In Bardfeld, who can seemingly play (and reconcile) any set of styles, and in Kris Davis and Michael Sarin, who are jazz players risen far above genre, you've found a trio of real artistry.


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