Saturday, July 9, 2011

Urban Bustle: James Farm

For an album of music dressed as a rural excursion, James Farm (Nonesuch, 2011) seems awfully urban to my ears. Formed in 2009, the group James Farm is clearly a collaborative ensemble interested in exploring different rhythms and harmonies to create something new. To me, this is the core of what jazz, as a musical form, should be in spite of those people who support the so-called "Smooth Jazz" sounds. If it's smooth, it ain't jazz, as far as I'm concerned. For James Farm, led by saxophonist Joshua Redman, it's about tapping into one's experience, playing with a swinging sound and challenging the audience. Aaron Parks, Matt Penman and Eric Harland, (piano, bass and drums respectively) make up the quartet. 

Their new self-titled, debut album opens with the introspective "Coax" composed by bassist Matt Penman. It offers Josh Redman room to solo in a quizzical way opening the door to Aaron Parks on piano teasing us with delicate notes designed to draw us closer. Followed by the very funky "Polliwog," written by Redman, this pleasing tune features the tenor sax player performing as lyrically as I've ever heard him. The lazy ballad "Bijou," composed by Aaron Parks, shows a lighter touch. But the mood changes again with a piece called "Chronos," also written by Parks, but clearly led by drummer Eric Harland. His brand of percussion is similar in style to Jack DeJohnette, who loves to mix it up on the kit marking the transitions of fast and slow that is the predominant feature of this composition. Clearly, James Farm is a band that is only interested in the musical pull of the ensemble as opposed to a rhythm section backing a horn-player.

"Star Crossed" is introspective piece carefully articulated by Redman on tenor saxophone. After a long, slow passage, the piece doubles in time as Redman, whose playing has really matured over the years, freely plays all over the chord changes in a steady rhythmic fashion. Ultimately, he winds down, like a train, into the original melody creating an opening for bassist Matt Penman to bring us safely to the original phrase. This is the best arrangement on the album. "1981" opens with an up-tempo rhythm driven by Aaron Parks that's simple, yet it features a catchy three-chord progression. The offsetting feel of the piece pulls you in again then tricks you by adding slow, freer passages for some funky spot solos. I can see this being slightly off-putting to some fans. But music like this requires your full attention to appreciate the inter-play between the musicians, which is one of the band's strengths. But if you listen closely, you'll be rewarded. The use of Celeste accentuates the whole tune.

“I-10,” which may refer to the fourth longest interstate highway that runs from California to Florida in the American South, captures everything a driver might hate about high-speed traffic, namely, its confusion. Redman works the music to great effect fully supported by Parks on piano. It's a propulsive piece that creates strong images of the urban bustle with a certain degree of angst. I really like the blues-like feel of "Unravel" featuring Redman and Parks on the duo melody. It's the right combination of space and sound as the musicians let the music breathe. It requires discipline and patience to let music like this float on its own. Following the peaceful solace of "Unravel" is the more eclectic “If By Air” that fades in only to stop and stutter with its dense polyrhythms. Redman twists and turns his solo fully supported by the band. This is a song written to dazzle the listener while sounding a bit cheeky, but it works nevertheless. James Farm closes with a song called "Low Fives" featuring Redman on soprano sax, an instrument he seems to be mastering. His licks cascade across some broad, spacious lines from Park on piano.

Joshua Redman.
Since his auspicious debut in 1993, Joshua Redman has steered his musical career in several directions: bop, fusion and contemporary. Redman clearly sees James Farm as an ensemble and although the name is a little banal, I somehow believe that the soil will be fertile and the harvest golden as the band continues to grow.

-- John Corcelli is a musician, writer and broadcaster.

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