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Forbes Graham: Magenta Haze

Gordon Marshall By
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Forbes Graham isn't hell-bent on taking the jazz world over by fiat.

Then again, a sterling tone like Louis Armstrong's, a sense of stride and a sidewinder sleekness position him to do so. He brings spot-on timing, inherited from his key precursor, Don Cherry, into the icy age of post jazz—and swings, too, situated comfortably within the classic idiom.

It is a prismatic phenomenon, his playing. Shades and tints channel through his trumpet, an ever-shifting panoply—not so much of influence, as inflection and deflection.

Jan. 6, 2008: The feature, a small venue in Cambridge, Mass., a tenor saxophonist from Chicago. He had a big, glittering sound, so big he didn't always know what to do with it. The pianist that night engaged him in some excellent free- form dialogues, and these were highs.

It was Graham, with his style of staccato stuttering and rabbit punches, who got the ensemble out of ruts and corners, tethering the tenor, and tempering the tone overall. This is a trademark scenario.

Another night, in a gallery above a subway station in Jamaica Plain, Boston: Dave Gross' all-free large ensemble, Grizzler, struggling to catch a groove. Discordant drama came and went, as the musicians found common entry points into the abstract flow but nothing coalesced. Suddenly, Graham's trumpet, lifted high, shouted out a soulful held blue note, coming up and down in gold cadences leading the band with a spirit or spell he was later to call "magenta haze."

Sterling, gold, blue, magenta—the prism. Graham has vision and a deft grip on structure and synchronicity, skills acquired through 24 years of practice, beginning with lessons at age nine and through his junior high school ensemble, where he crystallized his vision by way of Bach chorales.

"These taught me the disciplines of listening and staying in tune in the midst of complex polyphony," he said. "I learned balance."

Later he found a counterpart to Bach in The Birth of the Cool (Blue Note, 1957), still his favorite Miles Davis record.

The jazz beacons he's played with include Darius Jones, Raqib Hassan and Wadada Leo Smith. The list could be rolled out like a red carpet. He has appeared on close to 40 recordings. Rarely has he presumed to lead, however, adopting the role of game saver instead.

But this is changing: he is poised to make a mark as a leader. A new CD with percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani, Essences (Blaq Lightn, 2010), signals a new boldness; and two new groups, Wild May (centered in Boston) and Violetville (Brooklyn), foreshadow an imminent, inevitable tumble into the limelight.

All About Jazz: What was your childhood like? Your family? Did your parents play instruments? Listen to jazz?

Forbes Graham: My childhood was pretty typical middle-class suburbs. I'm from Silver Springs, Md., which is right outside of Washington, D.C. Our lifestyle wasn't exciting. I didn't get everything I wanted materially but I had more than enough of what I needed. My mother is a retired teacher and my father is retired from law enforcement. My stepfather is retired, too. He had some sort of office job. I come from a family of a lot of teachers. Both my parents were born in D.C., but my mom spent her early childhood in Philadelphia. My parents don't play music. When I was a kid in the house, I heard singers like Lionel Richie and Jeffrey Osbourne (who is still a big favorite of mine).

My dad used to listen to jazz when he was younger but as he got older he kind of went in more of the smooth jazz direction. But it turned out he had some cool records lying around, for example High Blues Pressure (Atlantic, 1967), by Freddie Hubbard. My parents definitely encouraged me to do whatever I wanted, interest-wise.

AAJ: What happened later?


FG: You know, I'm not sure if things have really clicked for me yet. I'm still working on the instrument. But I do have the certainty that I'm going to be true to myself. That happened quite a while ago, but overall, it's a process.



AAJ: How are your audiences?

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