James Farm at the Jazz Standard

Warren Allen By

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James Farm
Jazz Standard
New York, NY
June 17, 2011

Pianist Aaron Parks snapped the cover photo for the debut album of James Farm (Nonesuch, 2011) on his iPhone, in a moment when the image of a barn reflected in water struck him a certain way. The image is a lovely, spontaneous recorded instant of digital information, yet it's indistinguishable from paint and canvas. That mix of spontaneity, speed and art is a fine metaphor for the hardware of James Farm. In tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman, pianist Aaron Parks, bassist Matt Penman, and drummer Eric Harland, the band is an all-star quartet featuring four of the best players and improvisers in modern jazz. On top of their astonishing technique and raw style, there is a chemistry underlying it all that equals astonishing music.

After a supercharged debut at 2009's Montreal Jazz Festival, most of the Farm's gigs have been overseas or way out on the West Coast, but a recent foray to the East Coast found them at New York's Jazz Standard for four supercharged summer nights. Opening up with the crowd-pleaser "Polliwog," a catchy piece of upbeat rock-jazz, Redman played with the incredible effortlessness and power that has become his calling card. As the de facto leader of a leaderless collective, his poise and command captivated the stage all night long. Indeed, if there's one knock on Redman, it's that's his control is just too good—it doesn't seem like he's missed a note in the past twenty years. Amidst Harland's rock beats, his precise bends and the cleanness of his sound cut a soulful swath through the upbeat tune.

Part of the group's unique sound was its incredible grasp of polyrhythm. The same underlying concept of layering different rhythms that Elvin Jones brought to the famous John Coltrane Quartet is what Harland brings to the bandstand. But James Farm pushed those rhythms to the quantum physics level, with an uncountable number of odd meters changing form spontaneously within one song to create changing musical landscapes.

At the same time, this master's level math opened up new possibilities without detracting from the fun of the music. The songs themselves were filled with the musical signifiers of rock, soul, and hip-hop, mixed in with those subtle abstractions and complexities, to create a feeling of push within the music. Add to that the fact that these players have worked together for a long time now, and the magic starts to make sense—Penman and Harland have served as pillars of Redman's formidable sax trios, as well as playing alongside Parks on his spectacular Blue Note debut Invisible Cinema (2009).

Parks shined on Penman's noirish "Coax," as the band went silent and let the pianist cut loose alone. But the music he broke out was a sharp contrast with what had been played so far—expanding on the wistful soundtrack vibe with a sparse statement tinged with romantic classical piano, even as Parks paired it with the rhythmic intricacy and groove from moments beforehand. As time stretched out in the quiet, every band member had his eyes closed, and Harland gave his snare the slightest finger taps. Touches of menace crept into the piano, bringing back the darkness in Penman's melody before Parks hit a final high accent, and the band launched back in.

A spectacular version of Redman's wonderful "Star Crossed" followed, with Redman unleashing delicate showers of yearning altissimo, as the tune expanded out. The volume swelled and the tempo built, as Redman challenged himself to see just how much feeling he could inject into one repeated note.

The evening closed in appropriate fashion, as Harland brought the house down with a five minute solo on "Low Five." Always busy, but comparatively restrained until that point (save for when his bandmates' playing would draw out the occasional excited "uh!"), he spun a story out of rhythm in a way that very, very few drummers can, building from small touches, bare bones, into an energetic solo symphony that drew yells of joy from the Standard crowd.

"Supergroups" come and go, and history will make up its mind on how big the actual impact of this band proves to be. But at the Jazz Standard, these guys were a force of nature. More than a math equation, or a mix of mechanical parts, each one was poised to make a fresh statement at any moment. Even better—they know each other so well that they anticipated those statements, and framed them in such a way that the art was magnified and made more personal. At times the fantastically beautiful seemed incredibly easy for them—like Parks' photograph. Yet no one listening seemed to miss the fact that they're doing the near-impossible, and doing it in the moment. The audience, for whom music should never have to be explained, got the whole picture.


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