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James Farm Takes Seed as New All-Star Jazz Band

Yes, many will call James Farm an all-star band. Featuring drummer Eric Harland, bassist Matt Penman, pianist Aaron Parks and saxophonist Joshua Redman, the band certainly has some of the leading lights of today's jazz scene. But to hear Harland and Parks speak about the band's origins, James Farm seems something organically grown rather than a self-conscious assembly of heavy hitters.

“We're just a bunch of guys who like making music together," Parks points out to Spinner. “We have a lot of shared history and ultimately, from my perspective, we are not trying break new ground as much as make music that feels good, that's honest and that is coming from ourselves."

The rhythm section, in particular, has a history of playing together. Harland (whom Parks calls a musical soul mate) brought the three of them out on a tour some years ago. Then Penman used them on 2008's 'Catch of the Day' and Parks used them on his Blue Note debut 'Invisible Cinema' from that same year. Redman also played with Harland and Penman in the SFJazz Collective in that group's early incarnations, so it's really more a matter of these and other overlapping circles that brought the four together.

“Finally, we talked one day where we decided to put a band together and not make it like a standard jazz band with a leader—we'd co-lead and everyone would write the music," Harland explains. “We did a trial run with some tunes that we'd all been playing and that sounded so good that it all seemed inevitable that a band was on the horizon."

According to Harlan, the whole thing came together effortlessly, musically speaking, but the cooperative approach did offer one roadblock—the quartet had a difficult time trying to choose a name for the band. Eventually, after a long dinner at Penman's, they hit upon the idea of James, which is an acronym of the first letters of their first names. But there was already an English pop band with the name, and in any case it seemed too ambiguous to them, so they stuck Farm on the end.

Both Harland and Parks are adamant about the fact that this project is different from the member's individual groups, but the closest musical approximation would be the knotty groove-based stuff of Park's album with some of the lyricism of Penman's. While Harland brought in one tune—the sonically odd sounding 'I-10,' where the drums sound like they are being played through an AM radio—the other three guys each brought in three. Highlights include Penman's meditative closer 'Low Fives' with Redman on soprano sax and Parks really digging in behind him. Other standouts include the bouncy and upbeat Redman tune 'Polliwog,' which sounds a bit like the Bad Plus with a horn player, and dynamic opener 'Coax,' a tune by Penman that ebbs and flows with a strong narrative arc.

“The thing about these guys is I do have a handle on them in certain ways, like there's an intuitive thing that we have, but everyone surprises me, particularly Josh," Parks adds. “The place he comes from feels like a blank-slate approach to improvisation rather than prepackaged ideas. He is searching, which I identify with. Sometimes I look at the piano when I'm playing and wonder what the hell I'm doing. Then I'll sort of just stumble around until I find something that sounds good. I'm not saying Josh stumbles, but there's willingness in him to surprise himself, which I like."

There's no doubt that this foursome will find ways to challenge itself—the players are just too good not to. This group has a leg up on other bands because of the time its members have spent on the bandstand playing together in various combinations. But chemistry is a tricky thing and nothing is a given until it happens. Now it's happened and the record is out. Next up comes phase two—watching the band evolve as it puts tours under its collective belt.

“I'm looking forward to seeing how James Farm grows and how we evolve with time," Parks says. “Our chemistry is that we all have a lot of things in common but we also have very, very different strengths. If we can bring out different sides of each other than would be in any of our individual solo projects. I'm feeling really inspired by this creative environment. It can go any way and anything can happen."

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