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Matt Penman: Down on James Farm

R.J. DeLuke By

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There's certainly plenty of great musical exploits ahead for this group if, unlike a lot of aggregations in jazz, this band sustains longevity. Penman believes that could be the case. "I certainly think it's meant to be. It's not like a project band that's put together for a couple of years of touring and securing festivals and that kind of thing. I think it's a place. A place we can go to and aim for. Bring our ideas and try things out. I hope it's a long-term thing. You never really know. But it's meant to be something that is a real band, that develops ... Something with a real sound. That's the vibe."

Penman discussed James Farm while on tour with another collaborative project, the SFJAZZ Collective, which is also a fine group, though assembled in a different way (Harland is the current drummer and Redman is a former member). Begun in 2004, each year the assembly performs compositions by a particular musical giant. The eight members each arrange a piece by that year's subject, and also bring in an original number. The intent is to honor past masters while exposing new music and new directions. John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and McCoy Tyner are among past tribute subjects. This year the group takes on someone outsider the jazz umbrella, Stevie Wonder.

"The collective is doing great," he said, gleefully calling it "another nice, messy democracy. We have all this music every year. Sixteen pretty ambitious pieces that we rehearse and then take on the road. It's exciting and the music truly comes to life. I think the audience can feel it. This incarnation of the band is killing. Really killing. There's a common language being spoken and there's a very good feeling up there. Of course, Stevie Wonder's music doesn't hurt."

Nor does it hurt to have Penman at the center of the rhythm. Penman is a natural; his playing in any setting is sublime. Considering how he began—an Auckland, New Zealand kid immersed in all kinds of music, but with limited access to jazz—it's somewhat fortuitous that Penman has arrived at this point. However serendipity plays only a partial role. Talent then overrides. Cream rises to the top.

"There is jazz and there are good musicians there," he says of New Zealand, where he started on bass, at age 14. "The thing is, there's kind of a jazz community anywhere in the western world. Wherever you go, there are people that are into it. It's the same in New Zealand. There's a small group of people that play it. It does feel like a fringe music in New Zealand ... I was fortunate when I was coming up that I had a group of musicians that I played with who were really head-first into the music. We would write music together and practice and do concerts. It was this little wave, and everyone kind of went to the States and that was the end of the wave. But I'm sure there have been other waves since."

Penman recalls fondly his formative years as a musician. "We had a lot of activity. It's where I started having to write and that whole thing. It was great to grow up there, because I also had a very wide musical experience. Not just jazz. I played every gig that I could play. There are good musicians of every style there. Some really great groove musicians, funk musicians and rock guys. So I played all that as well. That's a whole education in itself."


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

Musicians rarely had tour stops in his country, so much of listening part of the process came from recordings. Records weren't exactly a dime a dozen, so they were cherished. "When you got one, you really got into it. I don't want it to sound like it's the Third World or something. Records were just more special. You got one and you really wore it out. It was the good stuff that came through. The real classic stuff. My early education was all about playing with records. Then playing with the older guys in Auckland. That was also very formative."

As a bassist, Ray Brown and Ron Carter, in particular, grabbed his attention and accelerated his journey. "Later on, Gary Peacock and Dave Holland, Marc Johnson and Charlie Haden. Basically everyone. I like all the bass players. Eddie Gomez. It was only later that I started to check out Paul Chambers. I was missing what he was doing in the beginning. Someone told me, 'You've got to go back and check out P.C.' And, of course, they were totally right."

Electric players were also important to Penman, who was gigging in all genres of music. He points out, "I didn't create much of a distinction between what was going on, on acoustic and what was going on, on electric. To me it was one big, mashed, low-end rumble. So checking out Jaco Pastorius and Stanley Clarke and Marcus Miller, later on MeShell NdegeOcello. It was all part of my education. Because I was playing electric bass and acoustic at the time. Mixing the styles. I think what attracts me to groove music these days is that I played so much electric when I started. I played in so many bands, where I was just laying down the baddest groove that you could for about half an hour."

In the '80s and 90s, there were no schools in Auckland where any contemporary music was studied. Penman learned on the job, gig after gig. He recalls with a chuckle that it was a cassette tape he sent to Berklee that got him into the renowned school. "I guess maybe after hearing a couple notes, they said 'OK. Bassist,'" he quips. "It wasn't until I got to Berklee that I had any idea of what formal jazz training was. It's certainly good like that. It gives you an opportunity to interact with the music and your own sound, from the beginning. At least that's how I did it. I had no choice."

Penman didn't stay there long, moving on after about a year. But the Berklee experience got him to the States, and got him moving in circles where other hungry, creative souls were moving about.

"Getting to the States, there's the realization that there are more than two drummers in the world that swing," the bassist said with chuckles that dot his conversation. "It is a nice little microcosm before you move to New York. It was very fun meeting people and playing and recording at all hours of the day. Doing nothing but talking about music. It was nice to get to the east coast. Definitely a good experience. But I'm also glad I didn't stay there too long and got out and moved to New York."

New York City can have different effects on different people. Intimidation, even confusion, can play their roles. But the 20-year-old New Zealander didn't really see either one. He was already set in the notion that he was there to stay, and that things were not going to happen overnight.

"So, I kind of set up shop and got to the business of trying to learn the music. I was still musically pretty green when I arrived in New York. I had a lot of work to do, and a lot of things to check out. So for the first three years that's what I was doing. Getting deeper into the music, getting deeper into writing. At the same time meeting people and finding out which musicians I resonated with. Also going out and getting blown way every night. There's nothing like that."

He recalls in that early period talking with George Garzone on a record date. "He was like, 'I know you're struggling, but as long as it's fun.' The point being, it's an uphill battle and that kind of thing, but if you're not enjoying it, maybe you should not be doing it. You have to enjoy your job. You have to make the quest enjoyable. If on paper the journey looks difficult, in reality you should be making it as fun as possible. Even if you're dirt poor. It's a good attitude to take through life, I think—and music."

Little by little, he picked up gigs, contacts and momentum, "playing with lots and lots of different people and gradually getting recommended for more and more stuff. It was a slow process." His skills and his musical intelligence gained recognition. The struggle eased. A decade or so ago Penman joined trombonist Nils Wogram's Root 70 band that is still going on. (The band recently cut a new album and plans one with strings next year).

He's also done projects with Rosenwinkel, Kenny Werner, Brad Mehldau, Chris Cheek, Mark Turner, Guillermo Klein, Nicholas Payton and Madeleine Peyroux. He performs with elite players and, like all good musicians, learns something at every stop, big or small.

"Playing with Scofield and Lovano, and seeing that level of commitment to improvisation, I would say, really drove the point home to me. Realizing that those guys are up there and they hear everything we do, every subtle change in the music, creates some kind of reaction from them. That kind of onstage dialog I just found so inspiring. Going out there and throwing down every night. I love it.

"I'm very blessed to be involved with such great people and people that are committed to creative music. When you spend so much time on the road, as we all do, you've got to be out there with people who you admire and that feed you and that you resonate with, and are good people. I feel really great at this stage of my life to be surrounded by great human beings, the kind of human beings I always wanted to hang out with. You've got to keep that life force flowing and keep the life and the music. We all try to inspire each other, I think. I feel very fortunate, for sure."

Playing improvisational music is dear to Penman's heart and is the primary path he intends to trod upon, with James Farm and elsewhere.

"It's about creating an energy flow. Not just on the stage, although on the stage it reaches this heightened art form. We're all directing energy and with improvisational music, especially, you have the chance to channel this stuff through the crowd and then through you, and throw it back. And when you really get it going, it's an incredible feeling. When you can feel the energy circling through you and through the people. You can see it in their eyes. You're really with them. They are a part of it too. That's what keeps you going, for sure," he says with absolute conviction.
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