I’ve never heard a whole Nick Drake song. I remember Volkswagen using his song “Pink Moon” in a commercial some years ago, and me not caring. But Jason Parker, a Seattle-based trumpeter, bandleader and hustler who’s been very supportive of this blog, decided to record a tribute to Drake, funded entirely through Kickstarter.com, and both the process and the product intrigued me.

I really like the band’s sound on this disc. Evan Flory-Barnes‘ bass is rich and full, without lapsing into that weird thrumming sound upright basses had in the ’70s (see: Charlie Haden on Keith Jarrett‘s Impulse! albums) or going too far into ultra-naturalistic slapping and clacking (see: many William Parker records). The piano is almost imperceptibly reverberant, and Josh Rawlings is a strong player who nonetheless exercises a lot of restraint, rarely erupting. Drummer D’Vonne Lewis is a very subtle presence, holding himself back and always supporting the other musicians. Cynthia Mullis‘s tenor saxophone sound is somehow graceful, even as she plays slow, thick lines. Parker’s trumpet sound is extremely full, more like a flugelhorn a lot of the time—perhaps it’s the source material, but he doesn’t seem inclined to start shooting sparks; instead, he murmurs and moans.

The first track, “Time Has Told Me,” sounds uncannily similar, melodically, to the Rolling Stones‘ “Wild Horses.” The band provides a gently swaying, but deeply felt bluesy backdrop for vocalist Michele Khazak. Parker’s own solo is pregnant with melancholy. It’s a nice way to start the record.

As things progress, they get more uptempo and aggressive. “Three Hours” (the third track, and first not to feature vocals) features everyone soloing at once, without becoming free blare, and “Way to Blue” (on which Kazak returns) is driven by a strong rhythm and a hard-swinging solo from Mullis that reminds me of Joe Henderson‘s mid ’60s work (which I’ve been listening to a lot in recent days). “Day is Done” features a terrific, slowly unfurling solo by Rawlings, and the stately “Cello Song,” while failing to live up to its title, does permit Flory-Barnes to pull out his bow, briefly, as the horns play long tones and the pianist fills in behind, somewhere between Keith Jarrett and Vince Guaraldi. No, really; if Guaraldi tackled Jarrett’s “The Rich (and the Poor),” it might sound something like what Rawlings plays here.

This is a seriously impressive record. Even ideas that might seem bad at first (like the flute on “The Thoughts of Mary Jane”) are superbly executed. I haven’t said much about the vocals, because with very, very few exceptions, I really don’t like jazz vocals. There’s a reason scat singing and scat porn share that name, you know. But Michele Khazak takes a Sinatra-esque approach here, reading deeply into the lyrics and making sure her performance serves them well at all times. Her voice is subdued and introspective, and everyone around her supports her; neither horn ever challenges her for dominance. Plus, even if you hate jazz vocals even more than I do, you’ll still be well served by this album: she’s only on four tracks out of ten. This is very much an instrumentalists’ record. And make no mistake: despite the fact that these started out as folky singer-songwriter compositions (or so I understand; I still haven’t listened to the originals, and have no plans to do so), they’ve been expanded and turned into jazz compositions with rhythmic fluidity, lyrical solos, and an inescapable group personality. The members of the Jason Parker Quartet—a working band with several years’ worth of gigs and now three albums under its belt—have made this music their own, 100 percent.

Five Leaves Left is available directly from Parker’s website, digitally (you can name your own price) or in physical form ($12). Get yourself one.

Phil Freeman

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