Matt Penman: Down on James Farm
“ People kind of look on the stage and say 'I wish I was a musician. I wish I could do that too.' But they are part of it as well. They're one part of the equation. Without the audience being with you, you're not going to get the flow going. ”
Matt Penman and his bass have inhabited a variety of musical places and spaces in recent years, all of them on a very high level. That speaks to his abilities on his instrument, and his adaptability to diverse situations. He of the fluid hands, rich sound and steady, melodic pulse always comes through. That's why he's performed with Joshua Redman's Double Quartet and the SFJAZZ Collective. He's also elevated the musical projects of Joe Lovano, John Scofield, Kurt Rosenwinkel and many others.
The New Zealand native, who wasn't formally trained but still managed to garner a scholarship to Boston's Berklee College of Music, has forged many strong relationships since coming to the United States in 1994, and he values them all. One of those resulted in a band that could become an authoritative presence on the music scene for some time, if longevity is in its bones. That is James Farm, which first sprouted in 2009 at the Montreal Jazz Festival, a gathering of friends and musical cohorts. But the band is working increasingly, and released its debut recordingJames Farm, aptly enoughon Nonesuch Records in April, 2011.
It's a collective of some of today's deepest musical souls, musicians to whom art and creativity are paramount. It utilizes the saxophone of Redman, the piano of Aaron Parks and the drums of Eric Harland, but as much as that, it draws into its vortex their musical minds. And each one of those is formidable. The word "collective" isn't just lip service. And the music produced thus far is impressive, not just for its excellence, but in the way it cracks open a door. It will be a thrill to see how the plant grows and what directions the branches take as they seek the sunlight.
"We've had a couple of tours thus far," since their maiden voyage in Montreal, says Penman. "Good stretches where we've tried out music and found our different dynamics. We have a lot of work coming up on the heels of this release. There's more work to do."
The band developed, "from relationships, really," says the bassist. "Me and Eric have played together for a really long time. We got to playing with Aaron Parks. We played on his record [Invisible Cinema (Blue Note, 2008)]. We did a tour with Eric's band in Japan. There was great chemistry, some kind of like-minded musical thinking. The same kind of sense of flow and melody. We had a fantastic time playing together. And at the same time, me and Eric were also playing a lot with Josh, with similar chemistry. Concurrently, we were doing these things. Josh brought it all together, suggesting the James Farm band.
"We also loved each other's writing. So it was a chance to have a band where, like with any good band, the whole becomes bigger than the sum of its parts. That kind of thing. Everyone's a strong writer. But then you bring it to the band and it becomes something better. Comments and suggestions from everyone. There's no substitute for playing gigs. Thankfully, we've already had a lot of gigs under our belt before we were able to do that first record. The music came in and it ended up beautifully, I think. It developed in the studio."
Penman adds, "The band is really just beginning. There is major potential there." To say the least. This is a foursome of fantastic individual players, all open to collaboration as well as exploration. Major synergy could be at work here.
"Musically, it's all collective decisions. Definitely," explains Penman. "In a slightly different model than, for example, the SFJAZZ Collective, which is more where the person whose tune or arrangement it is has the final say, musically. With James Farm, we're all trying to get the best organic representation of that piece of music, even if it means using two different pieces of music together. Or whatever. There's not so much ego being represented. That's one of the things I like about it. The band mentalityyou don't have it much in jazzis a really strong dynamic. It could be accessed more. The strength of having more heads to make the music as good as possible."
Penman, who has an intuitive dry sense of humor that seems always close to the surface, points out, chuckling, but making a serious point, that true honesty in a collaborative setting doesn't mean everything is jolly good.
"Part of a band is when someone brings in something that sucks, you should be able to say, 'This kind of sucks. Let's not play this.' Fortunately, we haven't had to do that yet. But it could happen. I like honesty, musical honesty, for sure. Getting outside that PC world," he says. "Having to get on with one another is completely necessary, but when you have a band, I think there's a foundation laid to be musically honest for the good of the whole, for the good of the sounds ... People get together and play on different projects. It's all very good. But I think if you have a family, you can kind of talk frankly. At least that's the goal."
James Farm, from left: Matt Penman, Joshua Redman, Aaron Parks, Eric Harland
The rhythmic core of James Farm is strong and resolute, but pliable. Penman's bass work is extremely sympathetic. And Harland is a whirling dispenser of all manner of rhythms. Both have such plain old good taste as well as technique. Their rapport stems from playing together many times over the years.
"From the first time we played together, I was like, 'Here is my rhythm brother.' We have a similar way of interpreting the pulse and the beat," says Penman of Harland. "Then there's rhythmic vocabulary. We're speaking a very similar language and feeling the beat in the same place. You can't really teach that kind of stuff. We had a great hookup, whether it was swing or funk. We like similar music outside of jazz, as well. Gospel and funk, and that kind of thing. It was a very natural partnership. Also, I think we like it when the music can open up and we can take people in different directions. We like playing with people who are open to going in different directions ... It all feels very natural. After I play with Eric, and have to play with another drummer, I have to reset, because we have a natural conversation, a natural dialog. With other people, you have to change your accent a little bit."
Of Parks, he recounts, "I kind of felt the same thing, but it was in a melodic way. He is someone for whom melody is very important. The first time I played with him I was like, 'Wow. I'm going to be playing with him a lot.' That's why it's fantastic to have this project together. We go out and we do all our different things, but it's fun to write for these guys. They are some of my very favorite musicians on the planet.
"And Josh," he adds, in no small fashion, "he's a monster. One of the most fluid improvisers I know and one of the most communicative, and quickest on his feet. It's a great conversation.
"We're playing the stuff that we put through our stylistic blender, and that's how we're hearing it at the moment. We're trying to play stuff that feels current to us. Interpreting the times," Penman states. "We're all influenced by groove music. It's very natural to come up with tunes that have these bases. I think a lot of people are doing that now. It's a great opportunity to put the stuff in the blender and see what comes out, while still retaining the great improvisational priority. Those aren't going anywhere. The way me and Eric play as a rhythm section is very much like a groove thrust. But the groove can go anywhere. It's supple, but definitely something where we're laying the foundation, for sure."
That's clearly on display throughout James Farm, where the compositions by all members are mostly song-oriented. These are not attempts to make super complex music. Yet, in the hands of these terrific musicians, there is so much there.
"Coax," Penman's tune, features a rhythmic motif, with Harland's smooth-as-silk drumming setting up the motif, run down by bass and piano. Redman's horn eventually joins and it comes more to life, before a pensive piano rumination by Parks. When the full group returns, it's with intense precision. back to the full group that plays with intense precision, on an uplifting tune. Redman, as always, is sharp as a tack in his improvisational statement, one of the true standard bearers on his horn.
"If By Air" is a Redman song, where rhythm is key to the vibe and Harlandstupendous throughout the recording, is essential to creating the tension and excitement. Penman's fluid bass solo is killer. Parks opens Penman's "1981" with a block chord riff, Harland playing a swinging beat over the top. Redman cruises along like a sailboat across, while Penman slithers beneath, creating both pulse and harmonic statement. Parks displays his melodic mastery; his storytelling glistens. So right. Harland changes up the beat and rhythms with a smoothness that belies the difficulty. The pianist's "Bijou" possesses a sweet melody that becomes stately, even sanctified, with Redman's tenor sounding gorgeous on top. "Low Fives," by Penman, is an ethereal ballad, where his bass is the main voice, dancing delightfully. Redman's soprano is a perfect foil for Penman, and a great choice. Redman is one of the few who can play that horn so completely, without harshness and with a sound as rich as Italian pastries. He approaches Penman's tune thoughtfully, and plays it with beauty.
The album is enchanting from start to finish, and one of the gems of recent years, let alone 2011. There are no attempts to have wildly intense compositions with tricky changes, yet there is great creativity, intensity and emotional depth. Great melodies. This is not absolutely unique in jazz. Writers like Kendrick Scott, Chris Potter and Ambrose Akinmusire, among others, are examining such paths with great success. James Farm has a special something of its own, thoughas does, for example, Scott's Oracle bandand there is sure to be more buried treasure unearthed by these four cats.
"I love the record. We were going for a vibe. Trying to draw the listener in and giving them an experience," Penman says. "I think there's a lot there that's familiar and even the jazz initiated can appreciate. We wanted to create different places with the tunes, and surprise. We put our heart and soul into it."
There's certainly plenty of great musical exploits ahead for this group if, unlike a lot of aggregations in jazz, this band sustains longevity. Penman believes that could be the case. "I certainly think it's meant to be. It's not like a project band that's put together for a couple of years of touring and securing festivals and that kind of thing. I think it's a place. A place we can go to and aim for. Bring our ideas and try things out. I hope it's a long-term thing. You never really know. But it's meant to be something that is a real band, that develops ... Something with a real sound. That's the vibe."
Penman discussed James Farm while on tour with another collaborative project, the SFJAZZ Collective, which is also a fine group, though assembled in a different way (Harland is the current drummer and Redman is a former member). Begun in 2004, each year the assembly performs compositions by a particular musical giant. The eight members each arrange a piece by that year's subject, and also bring in an original number. The intent is to honor past masters while exposing new music and new directions. John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and McCoy Tyner are among past tribute subjects. This year the group takes on someone outsider the jazz umbrella, Stevie Wonder.
"The collective is doing great," he said, gleefully calling it "another nice, messy democracy. We have all this music every year. Sixteen pretty ambitious pieces that we rehearse and then take on the road. It's exciting and the music truly comes to life. I think the audience can feel it. This incarnation of the band is killing. Really killing. There's a common language being spoken and there's a very good feeling up there. Of course, Stevie Wonder's music doesn't hurt."
Nor does it hurt to have Penman at the center of the rhythm. Penman is a natural; his playing in any setting is sublime. Considering how he beganan Auckland, New Zealand kid immersed in all kinds of music, but with limited access to jazzit's somewhat fortuitous that Penman has arrived at this point. However serendipity plays only a partial role. Talent then overrides. Cream rises to the top.
"There is jazz and there are good musicians there," he says of New Zealand, where he started on bass, at age 14. "The thing is, there's kind of a jazz community anywhere in the western world. Wherever you go, there are people that are into it. It's the same in New Zealand. There's a small group of people that play it. It does feel like a fringe music in New Zealand ... I was fortunate when I was coming up that I had a group of musicians that I played with who were really head-first into the music. We would write music together and practice and do concerts. It was this little wave, and everyone kind of went to the States and that was the end of the wave. But I'm sure there have been other waves since."
Penman recalls fondly his formative years as a musician. "We had a lot of activity. It's where I started having to write and that whole thing. It was great to grow up there, because I also had a very wide musical experience. Not just jazz. I played every gig that I could play. There are good musicians of every style there. Some really great groove musicians, funk musicians and rock guys. So I played all that as well. That's a whole education in itself."
James Farm, from left: Aaron Parks, Joshua Redman, Matt Penman, Eric Harland
Musicians rarely had tour stops in his country, so much of listening part of the process came from recordings. Records weren't exactly a dime a dozen, so they were cherished. "When you got one, you really got into it. I don't want it to sound like it's the Third World or something. Records were just more special. You got one and you really wore it out. It was the good stuff that came through. The real classic stuff. My early education was all about playing with records. Then playing with the older guys in Auckland. That was also very formative."
As a bassist, Ray Brown and Ron Carter, in particular, grabbed his attention and accelerated his journey. "Later on, Gary Peacock and Dave Holland, Marc Johnson and Charlie Haden. Basically everyone. I like all the bass players. Eddie Gomez. It was only later that I started to check out Paul Chambers. I was missing what he was doing in the beginning. Someone told me, 'You've got to go back and check out P.C.' And, of course, they were totally right."
Electric players were also important to Penman, who was gigging in all genres of music. He points out, "I didn't create much of a distinction between what was going on, on acoustic and what was going on, on electric. To me it was one big, mashed, low-end rumble. So checking out Jaco [Pastorius] and Stanley Clarke and Marcus [Miller], later on Me'shell Ndegeocello. It was all part of my education. Because I was playing electric bass and acoustic at the time. Mixing the styles. I think what attracts me to groove music these days is that I played so much electric when I started. I played in so many bands, where I was just laying down the baddest groove that you could for about half an hour."
In the '80s and 90s, there were no schools in Auckland where any contemporary music was studied. Penman learned on the job, gig after gig. He recalls with a chuckle that it was a cassette tape he sent to Berklee that got him into the renowned school. "I guess maybe after hearing a couple notes, they said 'OK. Bassist,'" he quips. "It wasn't until I got to Berklee that I had any idea of what formal jazz training was. It's certainly good like that. It gives you an opportunity to interact with the music and your own sound, from the beginning. At least that's how I did it. I had no choice."
Penman didn't stay there long, moving on after about a year. But the Berklee experience got him to the States, and got him moving in circles where other hungry, creative souls were moving about.
"Getting to the States, there's the realization that there are more than two drummers in the world that swing," the bassist said with chuckles that dot his conversation. "It is a nice little microcosm before you move to New York. It was very fun meeting people and playing and recording at all hours of the day. Doing nothing but talking about music. It was nice to get to the east coast. Definitely a good experience. But I'm also glad I didn't stay there too long and got out and moved to New York."
New York City can have different effects on different people. Intimidation, even confusion, can play their roles. But the 20-year-old New Zealander didn't really see either one. He was already set in the notion that he was there to stay, and that things were not going to happen overnight.
"So, I kind of set up shop and got to the business of trying to learn the music. I was still musically pretty green when I arrived in New York. I had a lot of work to do, and a lot of things to check out. So for the first three years that's what I was doing. Getting deeper into the music, getting deeper into writing. At the same time meeting people and finding out which musicians I resonated with. Also going out and getting blown way every night. There's nothing like that."
He recalls in that early period talking with George Garzone on a record date. "He was like, 'I know you're struggling, but as long as it's fun.' The point being, it's an uphill battle and that kind of thing, but if you're not enjoying it, maybe you should not be doing it. You have to enjoy your job. You have to make the quest enjoyable. If on paper the journey looks difficult, in reality you should be making it as fun as possible. Even if you're dirt poor. It's a good attitude to take through life, I thinkand music."
Little by little, he picked up gigs, contacts and momentum, "playing with lots and lots of different people and gradually getting recommended for more and more stuff. It was a slow process." His skills and his musical intelligence gained recognition. The struggle eased. A decade or so ago Penman joined trombonist Nils Wogram's Root 70 band that is still going on. (The band recently cut a new album and plans one with strings next year).
He's also done projects with Rosenwinkel, Kenny Werner, Brad Mehldau, Chris Cheek, Mark Turner, Guillermo Klein, Nicholas Payton and Madeleine Peyroux. He performs with elite players and, like all good musicians, learns something at every stop, big or small.
"Playing with Scofield and Lovano, and seeing that level of commitment to improvisation, I would say, really drove the point home to me. Realizing that those guys are up there and they hear everything we do, every subtle change in the music, creates some kind of reaction from them. That kind of onstage dialog I just found so inspiring. Going out there and throwing down every night. I love it.
"I'm very blessed to be involved with such great people and people that are committed to creative music. When you spend so much time on the road, as we all do, you've got to be out there with people who you admire and that feed you and that you resonate with, and are good people. I feel really great at this stage of my life to be surrounded by great human beings, the kind of human beings I always wanted to hang out with. You've got to keep that life force flowing and keep the life and the music. We all try to inspire each other, I think. I feel very fortunate, for sure."
Playing improvisational music is dear to Penman's heart and is the primary path he intends to trod upon, with James Farm and elsewhere.
"It's about creating an energy flow. Not just on the stage, although on the stage it reaches this heightened art form. We're all directing energy and with improvisational music, especially, you have the chance to channel this stuff through the crowd and then through you, and throw it back. And when you really get it going, it's an incredible feeling. When you can feel the energy circling through you and through the people. You can see it in their eyes. You're really with them. They are a part of it too. That's what keeps you going, for sure," he says with absolute conviction.
"With this music, we have a chance to do that in a new way every night, or afternoon. With different people. Sometimes it doesn't happen. Then you have to adjust and say, 'How do I get the energy going now.' That's also part of the quest," he says. "People kind of look on the stage and say 'I wish I was a musician. I wish I could do that too.' But they are part of it as well. They're one part of the equation. Without the audience being with you, you're not going to get the flow going."
Penman's part of the equation is covered. He always holds up his part of the bargain.
James Farm, James Farm, (Nonesuch, 2011)
Jonathan Kreisberg, Shadowless (New For Now Music, 2011)
SFJAZZ Collective, Live 2010: 7th Annual Concert Tour (SFJAZZ, 2010)
Nils Wogram/Root 70, Root 70 (2nd Floor, 2009)
Matt Penman, Catch of the Day (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2008)
Ari Hoenig, Bert's Playground (Dreyfus, 2008)
Aaron Parks, Invisible Cinema (Blue Note, 2008)
Root 70, Heaps Dub, (Nonplace, 2006)
Chris Cheek, Vine (Fresh Sound, 2004)
Matt Penman, The Unquiet (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2001)