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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.

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