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Matt Penman: Down on James Farm

R.J. DeLuke By

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"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."

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."

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