Pete Zimmer: Common Man
A couple of years ago I was talking about music with a friend, and on the subject of jazz he said, dismissively, "nothing new is happening in jazz music. The last real innovation was at least thirty years ago." I didn't even try to rebut him because in many ways he was correct; what was the last big new movement in jazz anyway? Fusion? Love it or hate it, incorporating rock backbeats and wah-wah pedals into a jazz setting just doesn't seem as momentous or groundbreaking as the high-interval harmonies and jagged phrasing of bebop, a "new thing" in jazz from, oh, fifty years ago. Certainly, the enormous, ten-year shifts that market the first half century of jazz are a thing of the past; nowadays the changes in the music are more discrete, minute. Listen too casually and you might miss them.
Of course, there are always places for jazz music to go, and for the young jazz musicians in the Pete Zimmer Quintet, the direction is an unwinding road backwards. New York-based drummer/composer Zimmer's first recording as a leader, Common Man , doesn't just evoke the mid-1960s Blue Note post bop sounds, it downright imitates them: the listener finds himself glancing at the jewel case for the "Rudy Van Galder Edition" logo. It's the period sound at its least eccentric: think Wayne Shorter's Speak No Evil , not The All Seeing Eye (contradictory though it may be to ever associate Shorter with a lack of eccentricity). Of course, we're not talking about, say, disco music: the harmonies and grooves of that period of American jazz are undeniably rich enough and varied enough for musicians to inhabit and investigate for many more decades, provided they're good enough.
Zimmer's Quintet (Michael Rodriguez on trumpet, Toru Dodo and Rick Germanson alternating on piano, John Sullivan on bass and the especially enjoyable Joel Frahm on tenor) is good enough. The leader's drumming is inventive and propulsive; think Art Blakey with a lighter touch. His solo on the cd's Cuban-tinged opener, "Search," is deeply musical and sets a high standard for the remainder of the album. But it's Zimmer's composing that makes Common Man transcend its genre trappings. The title track swings hard, and if its head's bracing harmonies make it seem like some secret, lost Jazz Messengers tune, it is a very good Jazz Messengers tune. Good enough to appear on the album twice: once with each pianist (somehow the one with Dodo is superior).
The jaunty "5 A.M. Blues" seems mistitled (if it's five in the morning, it's the whistling, putting-on-coffee time of the seasoned fisherman, not the bleary, sagging, nicotine-throated late-late night of the jazzman), but it's one of the best songs here: its rhythm of threes-versus-fours provides a burbling, dancing foundation for the soloists to shine (everyone except Sullivan solos and the final traded phrases of Zimmer and Frahm before the head recurs are delightful). Zimmer proves he can write a memorable ballad with his ode to his late father, "Time That Once Was," which features smoky, pensive blues playing from Frahm and a beautiful, if somewhat academic, solo from Dodo.
"Hustlin'" sounds like an outtake from Herbie Hancock's Maiden Voyage , although its waters are somewhat more shallow, and Frahm's composition "A Whole New You" moves the vibe from post bop to just-plain glorious bop, right down to its high-speed new harmonies over the familiar chords of a standard (in this case Irving Berlin's "I Remember You"). It's Zimmer's album, but Frahm's sound and ideas are all over this music; one hears Shorter, Potter, Mobley, but his playing is, ultimately, his own. Zimmer's drumming, however, makes his compositions come alive, pushes them into vitality. If occasionally that vitality seems stylistically anachronistic, it never seems embalmed.
Pete Zimmer and his quintet are doing nothing new; there is nothing on Common Man that postdates 1964 except the engineering (these small jazz labels sure get great sound nowadays). Can a jazz album so stylistically and emphatically "un-new" be one of the best CDs of 2004? I'll say yes.
Personnel: Pete Zimmer, drums; Michael Rodriguez, trumpet; Joel Frahm, tenor sax; Toru Doru, piano (1,2,4,5,7,9,10); Rick Germanson, piano (3,6,8); John Sullivan, bass
Track Listing: 1. Search 2. Road Taken 3. Common Man 4. A Whole New You 5. Time That Once Was 6. 5 A.M. Blues 7. Hustlin' 8. Daytona 9. Darn That Dream 10. Common Man (alternate take)