From 2017 to 2020, composer and pianist Chris McCarthy
charted a path as a noted sideman for such notables as Jerry Bergonzi
, Ben Allison
and Jason Palmer
. He was often seen performing with vibraphonist Sasha Berliner
and in duet with vocalist Clotilde Rullaud
. In short, he has gained a reputation for imaginative and supportive playing.
McCarthy's path has been blazed from a renowned high school program in Seattle, to the cloistered realm of the New England Conservatory, finally landing in the pressure cooker that is the New York jazz scene. His first recording, Sonder
(Red Piano, 2017), could easily have categorized him as a project artist, as the music was an amalgam of forms, including spoken word and vocal parts. The music was well written and performed, but in no way did it set a trajectory for what was to come next.
Something must have clicked for McCarthy in Gotham in those few years. For his next offering as a leader, he assembled a classic jazz quintet of meteoric young energy and veteran grit, to interpret eight clever and imaginatively written original compositions. Still Time to Quit
(Ropeadope, 2020) convened trumpeter Takuya Kuroda
and drummer Jk kim
with veteran reedman Michael Blake
and noted bassist Sam Minaie
. McCarthy leads the band from behind the piano, but clearly the music is written to support the vibe of the sessiona foray into post bop adventurism. The quintet setting is maintained throughout the session, creating a liberating sense of democracy.
The opening salvo, "That's All You Get," and the second track, "Ready, Steady, Here You Go," eerily conjures the spirit of Keith Jarrett
's early 70's quartet with Dewey Redman
, Charlie Haden
and Paul Motian
. Jarrett was then young, volatile and unafraid. The same might be said here of McCarthy, who provides colorful voicings for his bandmates to savor as soloists, while showing no fear in harmonically tearing the music to shreds and somehow reassembling it in new and interesting ways. The music definitively stays within its parameters of harmony and time, while bringing the listener close enough to the edge to catch a glimpse of what lies beyond. Minaie plays sparingly within McCarthy's compositions and Kim's intricate rhythmic clusters, to create a perfect canvas for the combustible musings of Kuroda and Blake. The elasticity of time, and intuitive sense of the rhythm section to play within it, is the foundational current of this session. It appears Mr. McCarthy has learned something playing in the working bands of veterans such as Bergonzi.
Group functionality aside, the individual performances by the three main soloists are inspired, and graphically state the individual nature of each. While one might cite the variety of influences claimed by the three, this is a modern jazz album in the truest sense. There is marvellous intuition guiding the virtuosity of the participants within a modern and original harmonic framework which still breathes the fire and orbits around the humanity of the blues.
"Shockingly Effective" follows a repetitive line which morphs into a three way, point-counterpoint dialogue. The contrast between McCarthy's deft, bright passages and Blakes's probing, dark tenor is as night to day. Kuroda plays in bursts, snarls and wavering long tones. The vibe is playful and free, a theme which plays itself out time and time again on this record.
"Toasty" personifies the other side of McCarthy's writing, one more of storytelling and melancholy. It takes a break from the fluid, interpretive spirit of the proceedings, and enters more of the compositional aspect of the pianist's musical persona.
"The Nightmares" features Blake on flute, revealing a dark, spacious feel triggered by McCarthy's beautiful voicings and Kuroda's haunting, lyrical prose. Kim fills in the spaces with intricate cymbal work adrift on Minaie's Haden-like response.
With this release, McCarthy takes a giant step forward artistically, stepping out of the gigantic, ominous shadow of the New York scene for a time. While the demonetization of the recording industry often sees artists viewing an album as a business card, or a documentation of an artist's work in a period of time, this album seems more akin to albums made during the vinyl era of the 50's and 60's. It was a time when an album wasn't just a "release," but an artistic statement. Still Time to Quit
leaves one with the hope that the artist has the vision to reconvene this quintet and see where it goes-for art's sake.
That's All You Get; Ready, Steady, Here You Go!; Shockingly Effective; Toasty;
Valedictorian Driver; Happy Tired; The Nightmares; Bury Me In Times Square.