Two Egg staff members were trying to answer the questions that follow James Farm around – the biggest one being, of course, “Who’s James?”
One of the staffers had that one knocked. Take the first initials of each of the players – tenorman Joshua Redman, keyboardist Aaron Parks, bassist Matt Penman and drummer Eric Harland – and then add an invisible apostrophe and an ‘S’, and there’s “James” for you. The other staffer considered that for a second, and then asked plaintively, “But what’s the ‘Farm?'”
I tried to answer that, saying it was “a metaphor for the collective spirit the group feels when they play together.” Hey, I’m a professional. I’m supposed to come up with existential crap like that.
Even so, I had my doubts. We’re talking four composers and three leaders in one band. Put simply, the math doesn’t work, especially in a genre that is solo-driven and leader-driven. I mean, look at SFJAZZ Collective, a super-group Redman, Penman and Harland have all been part of. It’s produced some of the most innovative music of the last 10 years, but the lineup has been rebooted more times than my old laptop. Make no mistake, James Farm’s debut disc is absolutely righteous, but would they be able to show the late-arriving crowd that collective soul is a lot more than a rock band from Georgia?
Penman’s “1981” got things rolling, with Harland weaving a delicious groove around Park’s insistent figure. Redman produced a satisfyingly smooth melody line that was soon replaced with the lightning-fast runs that are his bread and butter. Redman’s tone is never huge, but you can’t deny his energy, especially when he’s playing with people who inspire him to take it to the next level. Penman’s bass was low in the sound mix, but to watch him act and react to Harland’s percussive witchcraft was to observe someone who really digs his work. If anything, it made you listen harder so you could hear what Penman was doing. When you could hear him during his solo on Parks’ “Unravel,” the tone and the lyricism knocks you out.
Redman went out alone to start his own “If By Air,” playing a solo that ached with loneliness. The moment stood in stark contrast to the rising tone poem the whole band was working on only a minute or two later, each player in his own world, and then they turned our heads around again by finding a pulsing direction that crackled with a single purpose. If you ever see Parks in concert, be sure to sit where you can watch his hands. It’s half sculpture and half martial arts, as he alternately crushes and caresses the keyboard to put flesh on whatever sound he’s hearing in his head. We even got to hear that sound when Parks vocalized over his in-the-clear solo on “Coax,” another original of his.
I’ve waxed poetic about Harland’s abilities so much, it’s a wonder people don’t think I’m his biographer. If you want existential (but not crap), try this: The drummer’s approach could easily be called Native American, in that he uses every bit of his not-quite-standard-size kit to get every possible sound, up to – and including – the framework of his high-hat. Harland gave the opening of “Unravel” a lovely texture by playing with a brush and a tympani mallet; during “Coax,” he was hitting a cymbal with his left hand while he tapped that cymbal with the stick in his right; and his segueway between Parks’ “Chronos” and his own set-closer “I-10” ended with him conjuring waves of mind-blowing chaos while keeping perfect time on a foot-driven cowbell.
In the end, though, the moments that stood out for me had nothing to do with solos. They happened when all four players coalesced around one figure or one section to create a single unified moment – the receding lines that ended “1981”, for instance, and the dark meditation in the middle of “Coax.” The composition’s the thing with James Farm; that didn’t change one bit in concert, and it made for a magnificent start to the Egg’s 2011-12 season.
Review by J Hunter
Greg Haymes’ review at The Time Union
JAMES FARM SET LIST
If By Air