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James Carney Group: Ways & Means

Troy Collins By

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Inspired by his work scoring Edward Sloman's 1925 silent film, His People, for the Syracuse International Film Festival in 2006, New York-based keyboardist James Carney continued to explore the narrative potential of cinematic structures. Funded in part by commissions from Chamber Music America and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Carney produced Ways & Means, a "virtual film score" recorded with his regular touring group.

Steadily winding their way through this episodic suite, Carney's ensemble evinces an array of moods, ranging from austere to ardent. His septet features a killer front-line—Peter Epstein (soprano, alto), Tony Malaby (tenor), Ralph Alessi (trumpet), and Josh Roseman (trombone)—some of the most industrious players on the New York scene. With bassist Chris Lightcap and drummer Mark Ferber, they navigate Carney's atmospheric soundscapes with focused determination and effervescent élan.

Carey's formative years were spent playing in rock and pop bands—experiences which continue to influence his lyrical sensibility, both in his writing and improvising. His fifth album as a leader, Ways & Means encapsulates his compositional talents, as mellifluous melodies and lush harmonies alternate with brash contrapuntal horn charts and angular, shifting rhythms.

The album unfolds slowly, modulating effortlessly from one emotion to the next, buoyed by sophisticated, multi-layered arrangements that evoke the episodic pacing of celluloid narrative. The bittersweet opener, "Nefarious Notions," introduces the suite with plangent harmony and a string of muscular solos, while the pensive meditation "Squatters" alternates between edgy drama and brooding suspense as Carney's kaleidoscopic electric piano, Epstein's fervent alto, and Alessi's forlorn trumpet contribute to the ominous ambience. Drifting between moods, the languid opulence of "Onodaga" and "Fallout" evokes the poignant vistas of the most luxuriant film music, while "Champion Of Honesty," "The Business End," and "Pow Wow" punctuate the set with spiky, aleatoric interludes, providing the session with a seedy, futuristic film noir undercurrent.

Carney's melodious electro-acoustic approach is balanced by occasional detours into more aggressive territory. His coiled electronic cadences on "Legal Action" inspire the ensemble's most exuberant playing, featuring coruscating statements from Alessi and Malaby. Carney's bluesy acoustic variations on the Gospel-infused "Gargoyles" offer the inverse—controlled meditations that both sooth and rejuvenate the soul.

A slightly more reserved and cohesive endeavor than Carney's previous record, Green-Wood (Songlines, 2007), Ways & Means embodies the singular focus of the best film scores—a luminous statement from one of today's up and coming new composers.


Track Listing: Nefarious Notions; Squatters; Champion Of Honesty; Onodaga; The Business End; Legal Action; Fallout; Pow Wow; Gargoyles.

Personnel: James Carney: acoustic and electric piano, analog synth, glockenspiel; Peter Epstein: soprano and alto saxophone; Tony Malaby: tenor saxophone; Ralph Alessi: trumpet; Josh Roseman: trombone; Chris Lightcap: contrabass; Mark Ferber: drums.

Title: Ways & Means | Year Released: 2009 | Record Label: Songlines Recordings


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