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Matt Penman: Down on James Farm

R.J. DeLuke By

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People kind of look on the stage and say 'I wish I was a musician. I wish I could do that too.' But they are part of it as well. They're one part of the equation. Without the audience being with you, you're not going to get the flow going.
Matt Penman and his bass have inhabited a variety of musical places and spaces in recent years, all of them on a very high level. That speaks to his abilities on his instrument, and his adaptability to diverse situations. He of the fluid hands, rich sound and steady, melodic pulse always comes through. That's why he's performed with Joshua Redman's Double Quartet and the SFJAZZ Collective. He's also elevated the musical projects of Joe Lovano, John Scofield, Kurt Rosenwinkel and many others.

The New Zealand native, who wasn't formally trained but still managed to garner a scholarship to Boston's Berklee College of Music, has forged many strong relationships since coming to the United States in 1994, and he values them all. One of those resulted in a band that could become an authoritative presence on the music scene for some time, if longevity is in its bones. That is James Farm, which first sprouted in 2009 at the Montreal Jazz Festival, a gathering of friends and musical cohorts. But the band is working increasingly, and released its debut recording—James Farm, aptly enough—on Nonesuch Records in April, 2011.

It's a collective of some of today's deepest musical souls, musicians to whom art and creativity are paramount. It utilizes the saxophone of Redman, the piano of Aaron Parks and the drums of Eric Harland, but as much as that, it draws into its vortex their musical minds. And each one of those is formidable. The word "collective" isn't just lip service. And the music produced thus far is impressive, not just for its excellence, but in the way it cracks open a door. It will be a thrill to see how the plant grows and what directions the branches take as they seek the sunlight.

"We've had a couple of tours thus far," since their maiden voyage in Montreal, says Penman. "Good stretches where we've tried out music and found our different dynamics. We have a lot of work coming up on the heels of this release. There's more work to do."

The band developed, "from relationships, really," says the bassist. "Me and Eric have played together for a really long time. We got to playing with Aaron Parks. We played on his record [Invisible Cinema (Blue Note, 2008)]. We did a tour with Eric's band in Japan. There was great chemistry, some kind of like-minded musical thinking. The same kind of sense of flow and melody. We had a fantastic time playing together. And at the same time, me and Eric were also playing a lot with Josh, with similar chemistry. Concurrently, we were doing these things. Josh brought it all together, suggesting the James Farm band.

"We also loved each other's writing. So it was a chance to have a band where, like with any good band, the whole becomes bigger than the sum of its parts. That kind of thing. Everyone's a strong writer. But then you bring it to the band and it becomes something better. Comments and suggestions from everyone. There's no substitute for playing gigs. Thankfully, we've already had a lot of gigs under our belt before we were able to do that first record. The music came in and it ended up beautifully, I think. It developed in the studio."

Penman adds, "The band is really just beginning. There is major potential there." To say the least. This is a foursome of fantastic individual players, all open to collaboration as well as exploration. Major synergy could be at work here.

"Musically, it's all collective decisions. Definitely," explains Penman. "In a slightly different model than, for example, the SFJAZZ Collective, which is more where the person whose tune or arrangement it is has the final say, musically. With James Farm, we're all trying to get the best organic representation of that piece of music, even if it means using two different pieces of music together. Or whatever. There's not so much ego being represented. That's one of the things I like about it. The band mentality—you don't have it much in jazz—is a really strong dynamic. It could be accessed more. The strength of having more heads to make the music as good as possible."

Penman, who has an intuitive dry sense of humor that seems always close to the surface, points out, chuckling, but making a serious point, that true honesty in a collaborative setting doesn't mean everything is jolly good.

"Part of a band is when someone brings in something that sucks, you should be able to say, 'This kind of sucks. Let's not play this.' Fortunately, we haven't had to do that yet. But it could happen. I like honesty, musical honesty, for sure. Getting outside that PC world," he says. "Having to get on with one another is completely necessary, but when you have a band, I think there's a foundation laid to be musically honest for the good of the whole, for the good of the sounds ... People get together and play on different projects. It's all very good. But I think if you have a family, you can kind of talk frankly. At least that's the goal."


James Farm, from left: Matt Penman, Joshua Redman, Aaron Parks, Eric Harland

The rhythmic core of James Farm is strong and resolute, but pliable. Penman's bass work is extremely sympathetic. And Harland is a whirling dispenser of all manner of rhythms. Both have such plain old good taste as well as technique. Their rapport stems from playing together many times over the years.

"From the first time we played together, I was like, 'Here is my rhythm brother.' We have a similar way of interpreting the pulse and the beat," says Penman of Harland. "Then there's rhythmic vocabulary. We're speaking a very similar language and feeling the beat in the same place. You can't really teach that kind of stuff. We had a great hookup, whether it was swing or funk. We like similar music outside of jazz, as well. Gospel and funk, and that kind of thing. It was a very natural partnership. Also, I think we like it when the music can open up and we can take people in different directions. We like playing with people who are open to going in different directions ... It all feels very natural. After I play with Eric, and have to play with another drummer, I have to reset, because we have a natural conversation, a natural dialog. With other people, you have to change your accent a little bit."

Of Parks, he recounts, "I kind of felt the same thing, but it was in a melodic way. He is someone for whom melody is very important. The first time I played with him I was like, 'Wow. I'm going to be playing with him a lot.' That's why it's fantastic to have this project together. We go out and we do all our different things, but it's fun to write for these guys. They are some of my very favorite musicians on the planet.

"And Josh," he adds, in no small fashion, "he's a monster. One of the most fluid improvisers I know and one of the most communicative, and quickest on his feet. It's a great conversation.

"We're playing the stuff that we put through our stylistic blender, and that's how we're hearing it at the moment. We're trying to play stuff that feels current to us. Interpreting the times," Penman states. "We're all influenced by groove music. It's very natural to come up with tunes that have these bases. I think a lot of people are doing that now. It's a great opportunity to put the stuff in the blender and see what comes out, while still retaining the great improvisational priority. Those aren't going anywhere. The way me and Eric play as a rhythm section is very much like a groove thrust. But the groove can go anywhere. It's supple, but definitely something where we're laying the foundation, for sure."

That's clearly on display throughout James Farm, where the compositions by all members are mostly song-oriented. These are not attempts to make super complex music. Yet, in the hands of these terrific musicians, there is so much there.

"Coax," Penman's tune, features a rhythmic motif, with Harland's smooth-as-silk drumming setting up the motif, run down by bass and piano. Redman's horn eventually joins and it comes more to life, before a pensive piano rumination by Parks. When the full group returns, it's with intense precision. back to the full group that plays with intense precision, on an uplifting tune. Redman, as always, is sharp as a tack in his improvisational statement, one of the true standard bearers on his horn.

"If By Air" is a Redman song, where rhythm is key to the vibe and Harland—stupendous throughout the recording, is essential to creating the tension and excitement. Penman's fluid bass solo is killer. Parks opens Penman's "1981" with a block chord riff, Harland playing a swinging beat over the top. Redman cruises along like a sailboat across, while Penman slithers beneath, creating both pulse and harmonic statement. Parks displays his melodic mastery; his storytelling glistens. So right. Harland changes up the beat and rhythms with a smoothness that belies the difficulty. The pianist's "Bijou" possesses a sweet melody that becomes stately, even sanctified, with Redman's tenor sounding gorgeous on top. "Low Fives," by Penman, is an ethereal ballad, where his bass is the main voice, dancing delightfully. Redman's soprano is a perfect foil for Penman, and a great choice. Redman is one of the few who can play that horn so completely, without harshness and with a sound as rich as Italian pastries. He approaches Penman's tune thoughtfully, and plays it with beauty.

The album is enchanting from start to finish, and one of the gems of recent years, let alone 2011. There are no attempts to have wildly intense compositions with tricky changes, yet there is great creativity, intensity and emotional depth. Great melodies. This is not absolutely unique in jazz. Writers like Kendrick Scott, Chris Potter and Ambrose Akinmusire, among others, are examining such paths with great success. James Farm has a special something of its own, though—as does, for example, Scott's Oracle band—and there is sure to be more buried treasure unearthed by these four cats.

"I love the record. We were going for a vibe. Trying to draw the listener in and giving them an experience," Penman says. "I think there's a lot there that's familiar and even the jazz initiated can appreciate. We wanted to create different places with the tunes, and surprise. We put our heart and soul into it."
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