Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A Mother of Invention: The Pensive Enfant Terribles

Pensive is a word I would use to describe the superb music found on Enfant Terribles (Half Note, 2012) with Lee Konitz, Bill Frisell, Gary Peacock and Joey Baron. Recorded in performance at the Blue Note club in New York, this release offers music that is free of formality, yet full of musical alliteration and thoughtfulness. The music is played with such spontaneous abandon that there is little thought for what comes next. Enfant Terribles is an ironic title because there’s nothing contrary about it; although in the history of jazz, the musicians on this record would probably considered the so-called “bad boys” of the form. But that was years ago. The experience of challenging an audience, for its own sake, no longer matters to these artists. They play with the utmost simplicity and beauty as an ensemble.

Recorded in performance over two nights in June 2011, the single disc offers us a glimpse into what those gigs were like. Six tracks, all standards, adorn the album. But instead of preparing a list of tunes in advance, rehearsing them and simply tightening up the presentation, the group decided to improvise on the spot and use their perceptive ears to figure out what tune was in play. This is particularly good on “Body & Soul.”
Drummer Joey Baron starts the song as a solo, hitting the drums to phrase the first verse. Guitarist Bill Frisell is then able to identify the song and join in at the bridge, thus allowing everyone to know that what they’re playing is “Body & Soul” and not “Besame Mucho.” The humour of the moment is beautifully captured on this excellent recording.

On track 4, Frisell takes the solo lead and works the chords to “I’ll Remember April” that hint at his struggle to remember, ironically, just  how the tune goes. But he makes it work, as does the rest of the band once they figure out what he’s playing. The strong sense of immediacy and the band member’s sharp listening makes the whole album a lesson in how to be a musician. For one thing, as a wind player, I often get wound up at the notion of technique in my own playing. I sometimes forget to listen to the notes and gage their purpose and dynamics within the context of the song or orchestral arrangement. In fact, it’s one of the demons we struggle with from time to time: this fight between what our head is telling us and what the composer wants. For Konitz, Frisell, Peacock and Baron, that challenge is no longer an issue. These are familiar tunes they'd absorbed into their beings years ago. And playing them is a celebration of their shared knowledge.

Consider their ages: Lee Konitz was 83 at the time of this recording. Gary Peacock, 76; Bill Frisell, 60 and Joey Baron, 55. Konitz has been playing and teaching jazz since the late 40s when he hooked up with Lennie Tristano. Gary Peacock is best known as the bassist in the unstoppable Keith Jarrett Trio for nearly 30 years. Bill Frisell, studied with Johnny Smith at age 20 and cut his first record for ECM in 1982. (His eclectic body of work continues to amaze me.) Frisell led his own quartet in 1988 with Joey Baron. But if one tried to narrow-cast any of these players into any one-style of music, you’d be wrong. They share the one musical attribute that defines them as enfants terribles and that is they’re unconventional. Ironically, Enfant Terribles is the most conventional recording they’ve ever made, shedding all egos and making beautiful music that is pensive and almost, transcendent. It’s a pity there isn’t a second disc.

John Corcelli is a musician and broadcaster. He's currently working on a radio documentary, with Kevin Courrier, for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.

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