James Carney: Pure Heart

Peter J. Hoetjes BY

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James Carney: Pure Heart
When a large ensemble like the one heard on Pure Heart contains such dynamic personalities as Ravi Coltrane, Oscar Noreiga and Dezron Douglas, it's a sure bet that a bandleader is going to have their hands full directing them through his compositions. However, with just five songs to the album, pianist James Carney is able to allow these musicians room to maneuver. What's more, he does so without falling prey to the corrosive lethargy of routine formula.

Coltrane and Douglas have almost a decade of experience together, specifically in the live arena. Although bassists are rarely stagefront superstars, Douglas' heavy plucking is so distinctive that he could be kept stage-left in the dark and would still be capable of crowding the man with the horn if he were so inclined.

Put simply, in the shallow pool of elite contemporary bassists, he is the biggest fish in the water.

Alto saxophonist Oscar Noreiga and drummer Tom Rainey have also crossed paths in the studio before, albeit less extensively. Finally, the third horn in this septet is Stephanie Richards' trumpet.

James Carney spent a decade running a weekly improvised music series in Brooklyn, and the tendency toward adventurism is prevalent from the start of his album. He leads the group into "Inharmonicity" by directing Richards and both saxophonists to let loose at different intervals, their sinuous lines spiraling around and atop each other. This sort of rhythmic aberration is as much an acquired taste as it is an acquired talent for the musicians whose minds are able to find beauty perched upon disarray.

"Inharmonicity" stretched the septet mildly into the realm of free jazz, but "Throwing Shade" reigns the group back in a bit. After five minutes of organized disorganization, the ears are all too inclined to anticipate a wildness that never comes. Opening the track with Douglas pulling strings makes good sense, as the bassist can do dark and ominous well. The tone sticks with the song in various shades, with Carney's piano driving a tension-addled ride under the horn section.

The septet is given a lot to do with this album, but "Forty Year Friend" is where they all had to be perfectly aligned for the concept to work. There is an effortless intricacy to the song. Yes, Carney's compositional talent deserves its share of credit, but the delicacy which all seven musicians impart to so many individual notes is what gives the piece life.

The wails emanating from Oscar Noreiga's mournful bass clarinet seem to be carried almost by wind, coiling higher and higher until he is elevated above the group, joined by Coltrane's tenor. Richards switches to the warmer flugelhorn, laying a bed of sound beneath them both. By far the greatest concern all seven musicians have during "Forty Year Friend" is supporting the mood of the composition.

James Carney concerns himself less with showmanship than with leadership. He rarely takes control of his songs on piano, instead taking pen to paper and using his contributions to further whatever his agenda was on any particular song. They each have their moments of brilliance, brought to life by an unexpected lineup of musicians. Yet those moments are occasionally lost amidst Carney's constant boundary pushing and focus upon the concepts he employs.

Pure Heart's eclecticism isn't likely to win it into the mainstream-minded hearts of straight-ahead jazz listeners. Stubbornly demanding attention every second of its play time, the album isn't really suitable as background noise. Nor is it what anyone would call easy listening. There's something almost exhausting about it. Jazz has long been referred to as musician's music, and considering the intricacy of Carney's arrangements, Pure Heart does nothing to deviate from that poor stereotype.

Not every album must, or even should, be a jam session rife with staggering solos and memorable melodies. But when the horns blare for a final hurrah at the end of "Gerrymandered," there is no lingering ambience; no memories of awe or dazed rapture.

There is just silence.

Track Listing

Inharmonicity; Throwing Shade; Mayor of Marcellus; Forty Year Friend; Gerrymandered.


James Carney: piano; Oscar Noriega: clarinet; Ravi Coltrane: saxophone, tenor; Stephanie Richards: trumpet; Dezron Douglas: bass; Tom Rainey: drums.

Album information

Title: Pure Heart | Year Released: 2020 | Record Label: Sunnyside Records

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