It's good to see the jazz community is not shying away from pressing political and social issues of the day. Guitarist Brad Shepik, with his Human Activity Suite (Songlines, 2009), and drummer Alex Cline, with Continuation (Cryptogramophone, 2009), have both made musical pleas for the environment in 2009, following in the socially conscious footsteps of Max Roach, Charles Mingus and Charlie Haden, among others.
With Ways & Means, keyboardist James Carney aggressively confronts this century's first major economic crisis. Conceived as "a virtual film scorenot reliant on any images to tell its tale," Carney and his group stir a bitch's brew, adding scoops of squawks and shrieks, and doses of well-chosen space, projecting a picture of turmoil, clatter and decay. Sweeping cinematically from the bray of group improvisation to solo, often mournful, statements of individual experience, the Carney Group covers the full spectrum of the recession and its impact at global, national, regional and familial levels.
The opener, "Nefarious Notions," sounds a "Taps"-like hymn on trumpet, soon warped and overtaken by a tuneful group effort that, in turn, bends into backroom proclamations, most notably in the desperate argument of saxophonist Tony Malaby. If this is cinema, it points to the early films of Andrzej Wajda, where a narrator tells spectators from the start that the characters they see on screen will soon die. Housed within this opening tune is the specter of subprime lending, credit default swaps and exorbitant CEO salaries, ever rising like a volcano set to explode and shower us with foretold disaster.
The fallout follows quickly. In "Squatters," a stirring, multifaceted take on urban blight, Carney introduces electric pangs and demands into what begins on a melodic, if not altogether hopeful, theme. Such tones of advancing technology drive the acoustic instruments into a fitful scramble to catch up. Peter Epstein's saxophone and Ralph Alessi's trumpet bitch and crow for the common man, who sees what little he has being sucked away by the machine.
"Champion of Honesty," the first of three tracks credited as freely improvised group compositions, moves the story into more frightening chaos. Electronic blips and buzzes battle moans bowed from Chris Lightcap's bass, manipulated vocal grunts and horn blasts before the whole expands into the outer-space drift of "Onendaga." The remaining free improvisations, "The Business End" and "Pow Wow," bookend a four-tune progression that drifts through the stagnant, polluting space of "Business," rises into the Emerson, Lake & Palmer synth drive of "Legal Action," succumbs to the bitter-sweetness of the horn-heavy lament "Fallout," with its Shostakovich-like underpinnings, and falls into the final crash and bleeps of "Pow Wow," which might be said to end the movie.
The closing "Gargoyles," which Carney dedicates to his late friend and drummer Dan Morris, serves more as a coda: a personal tribute to an inspiration that drives Carney's life and music. But, on a wider scale, it is perhaps also a final, pondering gaze at the granite monsters we as a society have allowed to be constructed to lurk above us.
Personnel: Peter Epstein: soprano and alto sax; Ralph Alessi: trumpet; Tony Malaby: tenor sax; Josh Roseman: trombone; James Carney: acoustic and electric piano, analog synth, glockenspiel; Chris Lightcap: contrabass; Mark Ferber: drums.