Tad Britton: Black Hills
It's unanimous. Of the 8 cuts on Black Hills - the debut release from a Seattle jazz trio featuring pianist Marc Seales, acoustic bassist Jeff Johnson, and drummer/bandleader Tad Britton - the overwhelming favorite is "Fire and Rain. This according to the latest VIP friends and family listening/focus group sponsored by Mr. Britton and Origin Records. Turns out Tad's lads back in his hometown of Sturgis, South Dakota - not exactly a hotbed for modern jazz - have taken a shine to his trio's rendition the popular James Taylor melody.
Undoubtedly, in "Fire and Rain Britton and company have created an epic, unrehearsed, one-take wonder. Doubt hangs precariously, however, over the fave factor: Why does this track in particular appeal to those rough and rugged roustabouts from America's Badlands more so than contemporary jazz standards like Bill Evans's "Time Remembered or George Duke's "Love Reborn or Steve Swallow's "Falling Grace - all of which appear on this recording?
The short answer is fondness for the familiar. A good many more Dakotans can hum a few bars of "Fire and Rain then have ever heard of Bill Evans. Certainly the song has earned a permanent place in America's collective musical consciousness, beginning with its hit single status in 1970 and reinforced over decades via oldies radio stations, carbon copy cover bands and karaoke replays. Today it's likely the average Deadwood dishwasher, Rapid City wrangler or New York City financier is familiar with the sound of "summer days we thought would never end.
Leave it to a trio of jazzers to mess with America's collective musical consciousness.
Witness the audacity of these three musical bears: reproducing the well-worn melody, tempo, and melancholic mood of "Fire and Rain from the first beat and coaxing Goldilocks, the credulous listener, into a just right bed of conformity and comfort. Then, suddenly, an unforeseen alien note from Mr. Seales's piano is struck, pianissimo, to conclude the familiar refrain!
Technically, the note in question is an F-sharp. When played in the key of C major, as is the case here, the interval between the tonic C and the diminished fifth F-sharp equals three whole tones, or a tritone. Ironically, beginning in the early 18th century the tritone, or diabolus in musica, became notorious in Western music for its devilish discord, and, subsequently, loved by jazz musicians for its bluesy feel.
In emotional terms, however, that unharmonious F-sharp is a hurricane ripping familiarity from its moorings, causing surprise, confusion, and the need to listen carefully to what we thought we knew. And while the initial shock of dissonance can be disturbing (what would JT do?), in its wake follow the ample rewards of new chords, fresh progressions, and seemingly endless ripples of development incorporating elements of rock, funk, blues, folk and jazz - all swirling around the eye of a single blue note.
While "Fire and Rain runs well over ten minutes in length, more than one-fifth the disc's total playing time, brief versions of "Ring of Fire and "The Windmills of Your Mind foreshadow further riches for the auditory explorer with a sympathetic ear for classic Cash and shades of MJQ. Also on offer are Mr. Johnson's haunting original ballad "Dark Kiss and Mr. Britton's unique solo statement "Red Drum.
Many a musician spends the better part of life in search of his dream group: a collection of players who have traveled and continue to travel similar paths in music. Mr. Britton seems to have assembled his. The nature of this trio's collective consciousness, the knowledge each player brings to the music, is subtle and informed, playful and inspired. Seales/Johnson/Britton, all veteran players, navigate the currents of these tunes in unison while offering wisps of every genre within the wingspan of American music. And, like true artists in pursuit of their art, they offer up more questions than answers. Some of which are hidden among Black Hills.
Tracks: Time Remembered; Love Reborn; Fire and Rain; Dark Kiss; Red Drum; Ring of Fire; Falling Grace; The Windmills of Your Mind.
Personnel: Tad Britton: drums; Jeff Johnson: bass; Marc Seales: piano.