James Farm (Nonesuch)
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by Phil Freeman
I was really bummed out when Blue Note Records dropped pianist Aaron Parks after only one album—2008′s Invisible Cinema. I interviewed Parks for Jazziz (you can read that piece here), and thought the album was really strong. When I heard him backing Terence Blanchard, I liked that a lot, too. I thought he was a guy who could really make a statement at the piano, and some label support would have eventually resulted in a major body of work. But it wasn’t to be.
I’ve also really enjoyed the last two Joshua Redman albums, Back East and Compass, each of which I also reviewed for Jazziz—you can read my thoughts on Back East here and on Compass here. I wasn’t that impressed by him when he first emerged; it wasn’t until his third album, MoodSwing, that I started to hear anything interesting. Then I kind of stopped paying attention, only coming back to him in 2007 with Back East.
Redman and Parks have joined forces now in the quartet James Farm, with bassist Matt Penman and drummer Eric Harland (a team who have played with Redman as part of the SFJAZZ Collective, and backed Parks on Invisible Cinema). Their self-titled album was released back in April, but because I don’t read jazz magazines, any press it got went right past me.
James Farm is described on the label’s website as a collective, and that’s kind of how it sounds. All four bandmembers contribute compositions, and while there are solos, they arise out of the pieces in ways that, at times, recall rock more than jazz. Not always, though. “Polliwog” reminds me a lot of the Keith Jarrett Quartet in the late ’70s; some of what Parks is playing, not only on this track but throughout the album, has that same Vince-Guaraldi-gone-Baroque feel that Jarrett conjured on records like Treasure Island and Fort Yawuh. Redman doesn’t sound much like his dad (who played in that Jarrett band), but the interaction between piano and saxophone is similar; it’s not the antagonism of John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner, or the you-stay-out-of-my-way-I’ll-stay-out-of-yours thing David S. Ware and Matthew Shipp frequently had going on.
The one thing I really like about James Farm’s tracks is that they lack the long, winding melodies of so many New York players enslaved to a Steve Coleman-esque vision of composition. At the same time, they’re not just playing short riffs as a platform for improvisation. These tracks feel thought through—they’re songs.
They’re also the product of the recording studio. Parks plays multiple keyboards on almost every track, adding organ or synth to his piano and sometimes humming a countermelody. Jazz doesn’t require studio trickery to be relevant in 2011, but a lot of players are finding ways to use the studio for more than just the raw documentation that was the norm back in the ’50s and ’60s (more or less until Miles Davis‘s In a Silent Way) and James Farm are definitely of that school. They’re still about the sound of a band performing music together in real time, but they’re willing to add elements and to do things that may or may not be perfectly reproducible on the bandstand. On “I-10,” for example, the sound of Redman’s saxophone and Harland’s drums are highly processed, compressed until they sound like a sample playing through a cell phone. Meanwhile, Parks’ piano remains full and reverberant. It’s a fascinating contrast, especially considering that the pianist is in a very melancholy, cautious mode while the other two are hammering and wailing at each other. It’s like superimposition of two pieces, rather than one unified performance, and it’s fascinating.
As that description should make clear, the album shuffles through many moods. Rhythms and tempos come and go, sometimes within a single composition. There’s always an inner thoughtfulness, though; nothing is gratuitous, and these guys clearly know each other very well at this point, taking all the information years of playing in various combinations can provide and turning it into an extremely assured, cohesive “debut.” I’d like to see James Farm become a long-running group, a new Weather Report or Return to Forever taking jazz well into the 21st Century.