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Andre Fernandes: Timbuktu

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Andre Fernandes
Timbuktu
ToneofaPitch
2006

Jazztimes has taken to publishing an annual "Power Index" of the most powerful figures in jazz, including in it only those musicians who hold sway with major labels or big, building-based institutions. Enter 2007 and the new, web-savvy, music business and my own power index, which would definitely feature thirty year old guitarist and label chief Andre Fernandes. By taking the proverbial Portugalian bull by the horns and creating his own talent stable around his TOAP (ToneofaPitch) imprint, complete with its own downloading (and, hence, distribution) service, Fernandes is showcasing not just his own music, but nurturing a scene.

Fernandes is himself a very talented guitarist and composer, at the center of some fantastic releases by other leaders on TOAP. In demand outside his own fiefdom, he can be heard alongside a wide spectrum of artists, including stints as touring guitarist for Lee Konitz's European unit and as a key player in the Rocky Marsiano jazz/hip-hop project. He's already turned in some exhilarating work under his own name, but with Timbuktu he rises to another level.

The new album is Fernandes' third as a leader, and features three different units. It's dominated by his New York friends in a quintet which includes Matt Renzi on tenor saxophone and Pete Rende on keyboards. Rende, a ubiquitous player on the New York scene, makes his presence felt heavily, creatively speaking, on this portion of the record. Fernandes says that Rende is one of the main ingredients in the group sound, and that he always has a blast listening to Rende and "realizing how simple one can play, being so deep and lyrical at the same time. In fact, Fernandes' writing was largely inspired by the musicians he chose, particularly those sitting on the keyboard stool—Rende in the quintet and the American Jesse Chandler, a recent émigré, in the Portugal quartet.

And what writing it is. "Good People opens the set with strummed acoustic guitar and medium-tempo rock drums, Renzi's sax singing the "vocal. This beautiful rock-influenced ballad features Renzi soloing over Fernandes' three-chord rock progression. A device like this wouldn't necessarily move the jazz aesthetic forward, but here it does, stripping the tune down to its essential emotional content rather than a conventional chops' quotient.

An aesthetic is at work here, and "Manta throws a blanket of it over you. It begins with a complex unison line in seven time, tossed off as effortlessly as a summer breeze—but not a bland "smooth" breeze, instead a sophisticated small-group balminess that sweeps you up and draws you in. Rende's Rhodes solo is breathed patiently over Matt Pavolka's precisely syncopated bass line, the first sustained note placed perfectly in musical space, leading into a solo paced by discerning refinement.

Improvisation this lyrical seems pre-written. Listen for Rende's distantly miked singing, which is more musical (read on-pitch) than his less vocally gifted pianistic brethren. The bridge section between the solos is another stellar passage in a recording chock full of them. Fernandes' first solo begins with tasteful volume swells, begetting some prodigious, Rosenwinkelian twists and turns before returning to swells and space. Fernandes is expert at switching up his tone from song to song, but at its center is the tone featured here—one you can readily imagine coming from a 335-style, slim hollow-body with just the right amount of reverb and some slight added thickening.

"Panda Fight" takes the unison passage thing up a notch, this time between Fernandes and Chandler on Rhodes. Dig how Chandler adds color and extensions to the harmony as it comes tumbling down only to gather itself up again, with another cleverly twisted motif setting up the solo section. Fernandes' turn grows out of bassist Nelson Cascais' chorus, with a drier tone repeating single notes then weaving poignantly, dancing alongside Chandler's interjections, progressing into longer scalar excursions that begin one after the next from lower notes in the scale, then arch ever-higher. Chandler plays it loose at first, using arpeggiation to emphasize different rhythms, then splicing linearly, displaying his bountiful vocabulary and speed, only to throttle back seamlessly into the vibe at hand. The eight minute track blows by, accelerated especially by Chandler's Rhodes' magic.

It happens again on the band's reading of John Coltrane's "26-2," as it should on a burner like this tune. I can't speak for whatever the "average" listener wants, but I love getting a "reference" tune. In other words, we find out in three on-fire minutes that Fernandes and Co. have most definitely checked out the tradition, and are capable of devouring changes not only in a technical fashion, but with originality and emotion too. You bet Fernandes can bop, and so can Chandler. Is the Rhodes a valid instrument in a bop quartet? Hold that answer until you hear this. And dig the single hit per measure on the snare by Alex Frazio during the "Giant Steps" changes on the head.

"Smoker" is not that, but an unusually beautiful ballad that you could imagine Keith Jarrett and John Abercrombie playing instead of Rende and Fernandes. Here Fernandes takes the pastoral jazz-folkisms of classic ECM dates, and brings them into the present with modern-rock brush strokes and the hooks provided by the "vocals" of Renzi's bass register clarinet lines.

"Follow The Leader" is equally gorgeous in its own way, its beauty growing primarily out of the sheer lusciousness of the tones and taste dialed in by Fernandes. It's also enhanced by distinctive and effective pacing of tempo: the tune accelerates and decelerates, but the manner in which it does this is so organic and so magnificent that it becomes innovative. Interestingly, it's accomplished in part by using a device common in rock, that of the repeatedly strummed single chord. The human feel is reaffirmed at song's end, with a perfectly placed vocal tag.

"Rasgo" showcases Fernandes' aptitude on strummed and arpeggiated steel string acoustic. A thrummed bass intro gives way to a richly voiced head in five time which morphs into Fernandes' solo, in which he displays his knack for linear acoustic phraseology, spiced with his own spin on triadic superimposition (across rather than up and down the fretboard).

Fernandes chooses the acoustic again for the closing title track, accompanied by the beat of his own inner drummer. He pushes, pulls and at times, completely disregards the beat in a manner that can only be known to him, imparting an imperfectly human (there's that word again) lilt. We can imagine the folks in the title's fictional utopia happily marching along.

Listening to this release moves one to ponder the cultural marketplace's differing perceptions of jazz artists and rock artists, especially at this time of the year-end lists. In rock, the critical playing field seems more leveled. That is, it seems that new artists like the Decemberists and the Arcade Fire are compared, critiqued and recognized as welcome contemporaries to living legends like Eric Clapton or Bob Dylan, or established modern icons like Radiohead and Björk, precisely because of their freshness.

The modern rock audience and its commentators crave and reward "newness" in the form of fresh and distinctive crystallizations of established, even familiar, ideas. But in the genre we're allabout here, a release like this, accomplishing just that, is too often relegated to below-the-radar status when in fact, it should be held up as a shining example of a new direction in the music. Mario Franco's This Life or Nelson Cascais' Nine Stories, both also on the TOAP imprint, each offer more innovation of this nature.

Timbuktu does much more than start 2007 off with an ultra-fresh spin. For me, the rest of 2007's release schedule—not just "new jazz but all of it—will be measured against this album, the New Year's reference point.


Tracks: Good People; Manta; Panda Fight; Follow The Leader; Pete's Tune; 26-2; Smoker; Butt; Rasgo; Pluma; Timbuktu.

Personnel: Andre Fernandes: guitars, drums (11); Matt Renzi: tenor saxophone, clarinet (1,2,5,7,8,10); Pete Rende: piano, Rhodes (1,2,5,7,8,10); Matt Pavolka: bass (1,2,5,7,8,10); Andre Sousa Machado: drums(1,2,5,7,8,10); Jesse Chandler: Rhodes (3,6); Nelson Cascais : bass(3,6); Alex Frazio: drums (3,6); Bernardo Moreira: bass (4,9); Bruno Pedroso: drums(4,9).


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