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Matt Penman: Down on James Farm

R.J. DeLuke By

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"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.

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