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James Farm at Salle Pleyel in Paris

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James Farm
Salle Pleyel
Paris, France
January 16, 2010

The musicians in James Farm walked out onto the stage purposefully—four hip cats. The dim lighting at Salle Pleyel accentuated their mysteriousness, casting shadows over their faces as they took up their instruments. Eric Harland stood out as the coolest of the bunch in his light jean jacket and shades, and his getup belied his playing. Regardless of the type of piece being played, Harland this evening was on a relentless search for groove. The verdict? He found it.

This night was about the brilliance of the rhythm section. Bassist Matt Penman and Harland were incendiary all set long. Penman's sense of time is impeccable. Whether soloing or in a supportive role, he never lost track of the beat. On solos, he was able to find chords that were quite simply mean; these were Charlie Hunter—type lines he was laying down, and they brought out the bottom of the music in a way of which bassists rarely conceive. Harland, meanwhile, danced and grooved all night, ready to pounce on any pocket left by a soloist. His malleability was remarkable, as he adapted to every situation while managing to sound completely himself.

Harland sat down at his kit and immediately laid down a downright nasty funk backbeat. After letting the beat simmer for a few moments, Penman and pianist Aaron Parks joined in, Parks' low register vamp adding a darker texture. When saxophonist Joshua Redman joined moments later, the band embarked on "The Trickster," its haunting melody perfectly suiting Redman's powerful and heavy tone. After a fiery but short Redman solo, the song collapsed entirely into a soft group improvisation that led from the groove-oriented "Trickster" to a modern straight-ahead post-bop exploration. This is where Redman shines, and his solo made use of the entire register of his sax, building to a Michael Breckerian climax before adding a flurry of a coda as he marched off stage left.

Parks' turn was next, and his solo stayed well within the tune—very bop. Parks, however, is at his best when able to use space and nuance to tell stories through song, and so seemed a bit uncomfortable in a pure straight-ahead setting. Throughout the night's bop exercises (which comprised more than half the set), he seemed slightly out of place, never completely melding with the rest of the quartet.

The first song set the stage for the rest of the set. It consisted of roughly equal parts straight-ahead blowing session and groove-oriented modern compositions. Parks' understated vamps highlighted the latter, while Redman's virtuosity and clarity of tone dominated the former. Through it all, there was that delicious rhythm section. Whether these were all new compositions or adaptations of older ones was unclear, as the band chose to march quite quickly from tune to tune, often segueing from one to the next but never pausing to speak to the appreciative audience.

One bop tune stands out from the rest. Very concisely played (it couldn't have been much longer than five minutes), it consisted of the statement of the theme followed by two trio explorations. Parks laid out for Redman's solo, while Redman laid out for Parks' turn. The lack of any chordal backing pushed Redman to really search and expand boundaries with his solo, probing ever higher as the echoes of his sound sent avalanches crashing below him. Redman has been doing significant work in trio settings recently and it showed—it's not easy to keep sax-bass-drums interesting for any period of time. Parks then played counterpoint to Redman's in-your-face disposition. He calmly constructed his thoughts using only his right hand—once again, no chordal accompaniment.

But the group dynamic really shone on the groove pieces. James Farm the collective was on full display, especially on the set-closing "Polliwog." Each group member was permitted to play to his strengths—Harland and Penman laying down the foundation, Parks coloring the composition and Redman just straight blowing. These compositions had a little extra to them, a modernity that had the house rocking just that little bit more. The line blurred between the head and solo, as it seemed the creative process was ongoing, and the proverbial zone was reached.

This much is clear: these are absolute professional musicians at the top of their game. Every piece played was tasteful; every was note well-placed. Still, one couldn't help but wonder if there could have been more to this show than a perfectly played set. The table was laid for something transcendent, but this show never quite got there. There is time—this was the first show of the tour—and let's hope James Farm push the right buttons to become one of the more innovative bands in jazz. For now, it's pleasure enough to hear Eric Harland groove.

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