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Jeremy Udden: Far From Plain

R.J. DeLuke By

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That's New York for you. It's all happening at such a high level. You can't help but grow as a musician. In other cities, there are people that can do it and can't do it. In New York, everybody can do it.
Jeremy Udden is one of those outstanding working musicians on the scene in Brooklyn. A saxophonist, composer, and bandleader, he is—like so many musicians of his generation—influenced by a variety of things outside what is known as jazz, and his music reflects that. He's developed a band called Plainville that offers a different sound and feel. A different tapestry on which musicians can subtly embroider their improvisations. A different mosaic.

Out of the New England Conservatory, he cut his teeth in bands like the Either/Orchestra and stayed in that organization for about seven years. He eventually landed himself in New York City, but he spent time in China and thought of staying there. This year, moving to Stockholm was on his mind. But all the while, he's pushing new projects and is excited about his distinctive band—sax, electric keyboards including organ, banjo, bass and drums—that produces music with an almost-folk quality.

"The band is called Plainville because that's the name of the small town that I grew up in, in Massachusetts," says Udden. The band's previous album was also titled Plainville (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2009). "It continues to be a reflection of getting in touch with that, which is definitely a quieter time in my life, a more peaceful time in my life. Also, it's a reflection of the different music I've been into over those years."

If the Past Seems So Bright (Sunnyside Records, 2011) is Udden's third album as a leader. It shows his compositional skills as well as his abilities on saxophone. There are also things beneath the surface, like how he melds the instrumentation and allows his band mates to have a personal say.

Kicking off the new album, for example, is "Sad Eyes," a slow song with RJ Miller playing as simple a drum cadence as can be done, complemented by Eivind Opsvik's minimal bass lines. But Pete Rende's keyboards softly float on top, giving a pastoral feel. Brandon Seabrook's electrified strings give it a spaciness, even though the underlying feeling, as the title suggests, is melancholy. Udden gives a dream-like vibe on sax. It's certainly not jazz in the surest sense. "New Dress" starts with acoustic banjo, a trip down a back road in the south perhaps, with Udden's sax blending nicely to push the folksy melody. His tone is sure, and his melodic lines weave beautifully on an improvisation that is relaxed and satisfying. Cool. A great groove is established that evocatively tugs listeners in.

The music, Udden says, does come from his jazz roots, even though he adds jokingly, "It's jazz because I'm holding a saxophone." There's more to it than that, as this artful composer makes clear. "It's jazz because of the process that the music is made with, and that the musicians making it are trained jazz musicians. In terms of what it draws from, it draws from music that is mostly not jazz. It is [jazz] in the sense of how the music is made, and that it's relatively spontaneous. Stylistically, every song starts from music that is not what would be considered jazz. ... I hope everyone in the band feels free to take the music in any direction. I improvise, and my playing itself still has all those influences it ever had. I still think it comes out of my jazz roots, definitely. And it's been a real challenge to find a way to improvise over these simple songs in a way that I feel that it's my voice, specifically saxophone-wise—playing solos on this stuff. It's been a fun and interesting challenge to find a voice over it."

"Stone Free" is rock and funk at its base, and "Hammer" is far more in the folk vein, as is "Pause at a Lake." And so it goes, each song with its own home. "Growing up as a musician, I've listened to as much Beatles or Pixies as I did jazz," Explains Udden. "I didn't get into jazz until I was 15 or 16. A lot of music happened before that. I always played in rock bands throughout high school and college, and since then. The folk thing is more recent, over the last five years or so. The folk-like banjo thing really happened by accident. It was that Brandon Seabrook is a really good friend of mine. I've known him since high school. We played a lot in high school and played a lot in college again. When I moved to New York, we started playing again. Then we didn't play for a long time. When we started again, maybe four or five years ago, he was playing a lot of banjo. So I started writing music around that. It fit perfectly with what I was listening to anyway, which was more folkish and singer-songwriter things. It all came together pretty organically.

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