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Jason Palmer's Hat-Trick At Giant Step Arts

Jason Palmer's Hat-Trick At Giant Step Arts

Courtesy Jimmy Katz

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Were this a different century, trumpet virtuoso Jason Palmer might have a bigger name—maybe even grace magazine covers beyond the few jazz-focused publications of our times. The North Carolina-born post-bop marvel dresses smart, not in the Superdry-sweater, beanie hat, recyclable coffee mug New York-style one might encounter in the next neighborhood café, but in the last century, suit-and-tie kind of way we've come to know and appreciate from the likes of Miles Davis and John Coltrane (at least at certain points in their careers). Contrary to Miles, however, Palmer's personality is of humbler nature, as the outpouring praise for his sidemen, documented throughout various liner notes for his albums, suggest. He calls Mark Turner a "tenor titan," his collaborator, Matt Brewer on bass, a "true virtuoso," and notes that Kendrick Scott's "creativity at the drum throne constantly keeps [his] ears on their toes." Palmer doesn't smoke either, at least not for the camera, so there goes the idea of a mid-twentieth century magazine cover. Moving on to what actually matters: the music, which, in Palmer's case, is by far the strongest argument for why he deserves more recognition.

After graduating from New England Conservatory in Boston— his hometown of over twenty years— Palmer worked with a number of jazz A-listers like Roy Haynes, Benny Golson, Ravi Coltrane and Kurt Rosenwinkel before offering up his studio debut Songbook (Fresh Sound Records) in 2008. For the album, Palmer teamed up with saxophonists Greg Osby and Ravi Coltrane as well as his long running quintet at the time, featuring Leo Genovese on piano, bassist Matt Brewer, Warren Wolf on vibes and drummer Tommy Crane. The sonic aesthetics of Palmer's musical vision are still in their early stages on his debut recording and his compositional confidence not yet at the level it would soon be, but the stubbornness and energy of the trumpeter's lines and tone are already fully developed from the start. A year later Palmer starred as the protagonist in Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, the first feature length film by Damien Chazelle, who would go on to conquer Hollywood with films like Whiplash and La La Land, but Chazelle's is another story...

Fast-forward about a decade, filled with eight further leader-dates over which Palmer would continue to polish his idiosyncratic sound, and we arrive at his last three records, beginning with 2018's Rhyme and Reason, followed by The Concert: 12 Musings for Isabella (2020) and finally 2022's Live From Summit Rock In Seneca Village, all released on the Jimmy Katz-led non-profit label Giant Step Arts. The albums feature slightly alternating casts with tenor Mark Turner, whom Palmer first collaborated with on his 2011 album Here Today (Steeple Chase), as the sole mainstay. Kendrick Scott drums on two albums, his generational counterpart Johnathan Blake handles brushes and sticks on the most recent one. Matt Brewer plays bass on the first and was then replaced by Edward Perez, while the group expanded to quintet with vibraphonist Joel Ross for 12 Musings.... All three albums were cut live and transport that live energy uncompromisingly on to record—extensive playing times of between twelve and eighteen minutes per track and unedited several-minute-long solos included. Two of the records are double disc-sets with running times of around two hours each. Jazz for purists with a modern twist, yet completely unpretentious. Highly melodic, even catchy music, yet somehow angular and oblique. More than anything, though, these three albums are among the most exciting records to have been recorded in recent times and represent the very peak of the genre today.

One of the most defining characteristics of Palmer's music in the past couple of years has become the duality between himself and Turner. Throughout history there have existed maybe a handful of horn-duos, whose chemistry was so obviously electrifying and whose tonal synergy as immediately recognizable as Palmer and Turner's—the pairing of Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter comes to mind—and none of them harmonized in the manner Palmer and Turner do. Their unique sound is immediately tied to the complex relationship between their lines, creating harmonic arches in "chordless" environments through dense counterpoint. It's a technique that Palmer must have picked up from working with his counterpart, Turner, and the latter's own quartet, and he has consecutively, over this album-run, put his own spin on it.

Jason Palmer: "For me it's still surreal to share the stage with Mark anytime I get to. He has been a huge influence on me as well as my close classmates in college at NEC in the late '90s. Shortly before finishing college there was a time when I thought about giving up pursuing a career in music. I was even working as an orderly for several years during that time. Finding inspiration in music was becoming more difficult for me, that was until I started listening to Mark's record Dharma Days. That record changed the way I hear, play, and compose music. Mark's signature tone and melodic/harmonic concepts have inspired me as a trumpeter till this day, so I'm very fortunate to be living a dream of mine at the moment!"

Palmer doesn't make a secret about the fact that Turner has greatly influenced his approach to composing, too—a fact that can be easily heard when comparing Turner's quartet release Return From The Stars (ECM, 2022) and Palmer's Rhyme and Reason, recorded not a year apart from each other: "Yes there are similarities in my writing for that album for sure. In fact the tune "Mark's Place" on that record is a contrafact to his tune "Jacky's Place," just transposed to a different key. In structuring the live sets for the record I did my best to highly consider variety—in terms of musical diversity, key centers, time signatures, form, etc.— with respect to the musicians and the audience."

Palmer's punchy, dry yet muscular trumpet timbre favors roaring exclamations over hushed question marks. Which is not to say that he lacks subtlety—his compositions and playing offer all the dynamics of the spectrum. Turner on the other hand has, since surfacing in the '90s, built a reputation for his singular approach to applying scales in solo contexts, deconstructing and reorganizing any thematic material on the fly. He's Palmer's ideal melodic counterpart.

Jason Palmer
Rhyme and Reason
Giant Step Arts
2019

The main traits informing Palmer's music are in evidence throughout Rhyme and Reason, and straight from the start, too. After a short rhythmic introduction, "Herbs in a Glass," whose harmony is based on Herbie Hancock's "Tell Me a Bedtime Story," presents a dazzling, several-dozen-bar long head. These extensive thematic forms prove to be representative for Palmer's composing and appear repeatedly throughout the album and elsewhere in the trumpeter's oeuvre. Here, it is permeated with syncopations, sudden harmonic shifts, dotted eights, waves of fanfare and multiple melodic subjects, unwound in synchronicity by horns moving in thirds, fourths, fifths and more intricate intervallic relations that imply the harmonic landscape. Matt Brewer's nimble bass work fills in the blanks against Kendrick Scott's precise, swinging and rumbling pulse. What's most impressive is how smoothly it all washes over. No matter whether a minute or ten long, Palmer and Turner's solos never overstay their welcome, but are soulfully constructed stories that navigate through the composition by connecting the bars like dots.

On the title track the quartet ups the ante, turning a 6-time in what feels like a fast paced-waltz towards the last quarter of the piece, with trumpet, saxophone and bass trading solos in circles like dancers do partners in the ballroom. And when the horns make room for the bass, instead of stopping to play, Palmer and Turner just seamlessly move to the back and continue harmonizing to the tune, improvising elegant accompaniments as Brewer digs deep into his strings. On Rhyme and Reason, Palmer breaks the pattern of long-form compositions only once with "Blue Grotto"—a calm meditation built around a hypnotizing bass groove. Turner and Palmer move and alternate in winding angles to each other, confusing the questions of who's soloing and who's leading the melody. Brewer's part works as one long solo. Everything happens all at once, everyone is involved, each player invited to stretch out as far as possible, all the while keeping time and main melody in mind.

With nothing but highlights on the record, singling out specific moments is a tough ask. These tunes are memorable, their melodies catchy, the musicianship outstanding and the quantity equals the quality. One might continue bopping their head to "Sadhana"'s infatuating bass line—a minor third jump up and then a minor third jump down again, but from a semitone over the tonic—several minutes after the song is over, proving that big punches can be pulled with simple means. "Mark's Place" is the product of a more technical approach—it being, in Palmer's words, a "tip of the hat to Mark Turner's song 'Jacky's Place'" with the chords transposed up a fifth and the time signature expanded by an extra beat. The composition is equipped with eloquent call-and-response motifs, ably balanced between trumpet and sax. "Kalispel Bay"'s soaring theme is beautifully layered into the textures of the two frontmen, revealing a beguiling narrative that makes the changes pass by like warm breezes on the beach. Hard to imagine that Palmer wrote the tune when on winter vacation in Idaho. It was, however, composed on a ukulele— order restored.

And still, even amid all these treats, "Waltz for Diana" stands out as a major accomplishment. Palmer says the "song was faintly inspired by Kurt Rosenwinkel's composition 'Dream of the Old,'" but that, "it's also a nod to Bill Evans' 'Waltz for Debbie." Indeed, Palmer borrows elements from both the harmonic language of Rosenwinkel on the one hand, and the timeless lyrical quality of Bill Evans on the other, but with more intricately wrought melodic twists on top of that. In a way it is again representative of the qualities that distinguish Palmer's writing. The extended, extensive head, the call-and-response notions, the dotted, syncopated lines and yet everything singable, everything dancing, as if it came easily to him and the band. When he quotes "My favorite Things" halfway through his solo we know for sure that, indeed, doing this must belong among his.

Jason Palmer
The Concert: 12 Musings For Isabella
Giant Step Arts
2020

The Concert: 12 Musings for Isabella, recorded live at the Harold S. Vanderbilt Penthouse in May 2019, is a continuation of Rhyme and Reason in multiple ways. For one thing, the majority of the band remains the same— only Brewer is replaced by Edward Perez on bass and with Joel Ross, Palmer recruited the fresh vibraphone star from Blue-Note Records. Secondly, the music is structured in the same guise as before—and, with 12 pieces at an accumulated two hours and 15 minutes, the abundance has returned, too.

As reflected in the respective song-titles, Palmer's compositions are inspired by the paintings that had fallen victim to the infamous heist at the Boston Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990, leaving empty frames on display in the Museum until today. As such, the music is based on a more character-driven narrative. Sometimes the relation between Palmer's compositions and the paintings is more literate and symbolic, as when he portrays the color of the protagonist's clothes in Rembrandt's "A Lady and Gentleman in Black" by composing the melody of the tune strictly on the black notes of the piano. Other times the connection between piece and artwork is more suggestive, as Palmer's take on "A French Imperial Eagle Finial," whose appearance moved the trumpeter "to write a brisk piece with a flighty melody for the band." No matter the manner or mode of translation to music, Palmer's pieces consistently evoke strong impressions and present rigorous musicianship.

Of all jazz instruments that traditionally contribute to a group's harmonic frame, the vibraphone, with its floating tonal qualities, has to be the least direct one. In that sense, instead of reorganizing the group sound, Ross functions as an extension to the quartet, contributing the occasional harmonic pattern here and there, accompanying the changes with soft strokes around the more rapidly paced sections, but most of all delving into melodic exchanges with his sidemen and performing exceptional solos.

Jason Palmer: "Joel is a truly gifted musician and I got the opportunity to play with him in Tim Warfield's band a year before my recording. During that concert I realized that I needed to have him on one of my projects as soon as I could make it possible. In so far as comping is concerned, I've found the a lot of it has to do with the musical disposition of the player and not the instrument. Joel has huge ears and his musical intuition made it a very easy integration into that record. I'm hoping he can make it to the next continuation for that project. I'm currently writing for that."

With plenty of room to flex in multifaceted compositional frames, the duality of Palmer and Turner enters into symbiosis with Ross, skating through this up-tempo set with dexterous exchanges and soulful expression. "A Lady and Gentleman in Black"'s jumpy ostinato is fueled by Kendrick Scott's ferocious stick work, at times hitting everything but the drum's head. Scott steals the show on "Christ In A Storm On the Lake of Galilee" —a standout track whose head is made up of stubborn fourths on horns running against a smooth-flowing 15/8 time with emphasis on the off-beat— the 15 time deriving from the 15 individuals on the corresponding painting. The drummer's two-minute long intro is the preamble to a high-energy performance full of memorable interplay by the entire band.

On "An Ancient Chinese Gu," Palmer alludes to the Asian theme with pentatonic material, bringing a folkloric element to the fore, while "The Concert (Vermeer)" is a smooth and patient piece, filled with breezy melodies and exceptional soloing by Ross, who excels on the entire record by feeling out exactly what the respective tune needs.

Palmer has a knack for coating his ideas in several layers. It's never only about the inventive melody, only about the substantial harmonies, just a rhythmic trick or a particularly striking bass-line—it's usually all of the above simultaneously. "La Sortie de Pesage (Degas)" is exemplary of this, with its deceivingly simple intro in what appears to be a 3/4 time fast turning into a galloping 6/4, the horns suddenly going off on a tangent, before the band goes on to balance alternating (and alternatingly pulsed) passages with fierce solos and intriguing harmonic progressions. On "Chez Tortoni (Manet)" Palmer offers his most straight-forward approach to post-bop writing after an extensive bass-introduction by Edward Perez. A minor-major shift is at the heart of the tune, and this ambiguous energy is played upon by some of Palmer and Turner's most determined lines.

Jason Palmer
Live From Summit Rock In Seneca Village
Giant Step Arts
2022

Three of the six pieces on the second disc of 12 Musings... are reprised on Live From Summit Rock In Seneca Village. These are "Program for an Artistic Soiree (Degas)," "Self Portrait (Rembrandt)" and "Landscape with an Obelisk (Flinck)." "Program..." is bookended by serene, balladic sections, which, according to Palmer, represent his "attempt to capture the quality of the water in the middle of the painting." But in-between those sections the group gives it everything it has to offer. With the vibraphone out of the picture on Live From Summit Rock In Seneca Village, Johnathan Blake, replacing Kendrick Scott, uses the extra space for an extensive drum intro. His drumming brings a new energy altogether to the live session, recorded in the context of the "Walk With The Wind" live series in Central Park, initiated by Giant Step Arts during the pandemic.

Jason Palmer: "Johnathan Blake is another musician that has an optimal level of musical intuition. He's also a great reader. He agreed to do the concert pretty much at the last minute. I think I called him for it a week or two before the gig. He's a great orchestrator of the songs I wrote and as a comper he (as does Kendrick) often plays rhythmic devices that are usually the perfect set up to what the soloist is going to play, or in some cases is played at the exact same time."

Going into detailed comparison of the quartet versions and their quintet counterparts would be unnecessary, even counter-productive, as Palmer's compositions, like standards, only introduce a very general form and a couple of melodic cornerstones, leaving the rest up to the individual interpreters. Suffice to say that the musicians Palmer has surrounded himself with on these recordings are more than capable of making their mark on his compositions and, even more, tie everything together in different but equally captivating ways.

The two remaining compositions on Live From Summit Rock... are "Falling In" and "Kalispel Bay," the latter of which already appeared on Rhyme and Reason. "Falling In," too, is a Palmer composition from the past, initially recorded and released on his 2014 album Places (SteepleChase). The live renditions give the pieces new spark, with Johnathan Blake replacing Kendrick Scott (Scott also drummed on Places) being the most notable and audible shift in energy.

Regardless of which environment he is in, who he has accompanied by or what impetus stands at the root of his next creation, Palmer's art and craft will stop the observer in their tracks. His unique sound and untamable appetite to connect in and with music should grab anyone's attention, not by force, but through the convincing lines that he plays and the quality of the groups he puts together.

Tracks and Personnel

Rhyme and Reason

Tracks: CD 1: Herbs In A Glass; Rhyme And Reason; Blue Grotto; Sadhana; CD 2: The Hampton Inn (For Alan); Mark's Place; Waltz For Diana; Kalispel Bay.

Personnel: Jason Palmer: trumpet; Mark Turner: tenor saxophone; Matt Brewer: bass; Kendrick Scott: drums

The Concert: 12 Musings For Isabella

Tracks: CD 1: A Lady and Gentleman in Black (Rembrandt); Cortege and Environs do Florence (Degas); La Sortie de Pesage (Degas); Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee (Rembrandt); A French Imperial Eagle Finial; Chez Tortoni (Manet). CD 2: Program for an Artistic Soiree (Degas); An Ancient Chinese Gu; The Concert (Vermeer); Landscape with an Obelisk (Flinck); Self Portrait (Rembrandt); Three Mounted Jockeys (Degas).

Personnel: Jason Palmer: trumpet; Mark Turner: saxophone, tenor; Joel Ross: vibraphone; Edward Perez: bass; Kendrick Scott: drums.

Live From Summit Rock In Seneca Village

Tracks: Falling In; Landscape With An Obelisk (Flinck); Kalispel Bay; Self Portrait (Rembrandt); Program For An Artistic Soiree (Degas).

Personnel: Jason Palmer: trumpet; Mark Turner: saxophone, tenor; Edward Perez: bass; Johnathan Blake: drums.

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