Jason Parker Quartet: Five Leaves Left (2011)
For its fourth album, the Jason Parker Quartet takes a sharp departure from its previous three efforts. Rather than simply cutting another solid straight-ahead quartet date, trumpeter Parker has added vocalist Michele Khazak, and multi-woodwind blower Cynthia Mullis, to reinterpret an entire folk-pop album: Nick Drake's Five Leaves Left (Island Records, 1969). Despite being far outside the typical jazz cannon, Drake's music continues to receive coverage from a number of jazz artists, including pianist Brad Mehldau, proving that unexpected choices can yield truly inspired performances, and Five Leaves Left is just that, in spades.
Drake was a tortured singer-songwriter, committing suicide in 1974 at the age of 26, after a debilitating struggle with depression. His lyrics are eloquent, melancholy and substantive, and translate well to the jazz idiom, especially compared to some lighter standards. These songs are not happy and gay, but they make a beautiful libretto, and it is refreshing to hear such great poetry.
Parker made an exceptional pick in vocalist Michele Khazak. She has a rich, emotiveeven slightly smokyalto that perfectly complements the words' moodiness, which she delivers seemingly from a position of emotional strength rather than vulnerability. As good as Drake's lyrics are, Khazak's voice is so beautiful that it's easy to overlook them in favor of simply listening to her voice.
Of course, at the core of this date is a great quartet, with a woodwind addition, and half the record is given over to strictly instrumental numbers. Parker plays his horn open, with very warm tone and, in places, a bit of a Spanish tinge. It's an attractive sound from a musician with a terrific melodic aesthetic. No overblown histrionics, just a great performance.
Pianist Josh Rawlings proves himself to be a versatile player, delivering a variety of musical atmospheres. On "Day is Done," he proffers a bit of Americana, and closes the album with some liturgical sounding, hymn-like structures on "Saturday Sun."
Mullis, doubling on flute and tenor saxophone, adds some complimentary texture throughout the recording, and is a powerful soloist in her own right. The rhythm section- -bassist Evan Flory-Barnes and drummer D'Vonne Lewis- -keeps everything moving along with aplomb. Everyone is in top form.
Given its unusual source material, Five Leaves Left could be a risky move for a jazz combo. Still, while some jazz fans have a tendency to stay within defined boundaries, listening to what they know and love, the pop-sourced Five Leaves Left remains very much a jazz albumand a great one, at thatdeserving of some serious attention.
Track Listing: Time Has Told Me; River Man; Three Hours; Way to Blue; Day Is Done; Cello Song; The Thoughts of Mary Jane; Man in a Shed; Fruit Tree; Saturday Sun.
Personnel: Jason Parker: trumpet, flugelhorn; Josh Rawlings: piano; Evan Flory- Barnes: bass; D'Vonne Lewis: drums; Michele Khazak: vocals; Cynthia Mullis: tenor sax, flute.