April 26, 2011
If you are able to infer little else as the album opens, it should be immediately clear that James Farm is going to be less famous for fresh vegetables than they are a fresh approach. In their debut recording of the same name, the album opens with “Coax”, a dark and lingering piano melody punctuated by the driving combination of saxophone and rhythm. It is a track that maintains a solid theme without sacrificing improvisation to the tried and true comfort of topical familiarity. With “Polliwog”, the band takes the very whimsical sounding lead of saxophonist Joshua Redman. What you are left with is what sounds like the kind of unbridled exuberance you encounter in children at the age when they still don’t mind playing with their food. In an ongoing melodic dialog between instruments, solos acquiesce the floor in turns, with rhythm following the melody in a cadence so close to Redman’s playing, it would mirror exactly were it not for the distinct voice of drummer, Eric Harland, against the saxophone performance.
The ability to preserve the individual voices of musicians in a group format, where cooperation is fluid enough for them to work simultaneously as a well-oiled and cohesive sound machine, is what may be most immediately special about James Farm. There are and have been many great groups recording with the terrible habit of organizing or playing in a manner that encourages someone’s performance to get lost in the sauce, never to the point of fostering invisibility, but very often failing to emphasize and utilize the talents of each player equally. That does not occur with James Farm, the double-trio comprised of two bandleaders, Joshua Redman and pianist Aaron Parks, playing with the shared rhythm section of bassist Matt Penman and drummer Eric Harland. The group formed after Redman, awe-struck by Parks’ Invisible Cinema (Blue Note), sought to join forces with the pianist and rhythm section already familiar from Redman’s life as a member of the SF Jazz Collective; it is a marriage of minds and musical influences ranging from Parks’ proclivity for channeling rock to Redman’s interests in hip-hop and electronica. These leanings are no more expertly displayed than on “I-10”, a track that has at the heart of it, a grinding electronic melody, possibly the byproduct of effects pedals on Redman’s saxophone, interspersed with piano and frenetic cadence.
What makes the band’s alternative arrangement even more appealing is the presence of four composers; each band member lending his ear and pen to at least one piece allows for an unselfish aesthetic as standard. What you end up with is a wide expanse of ideas and styles upon which to build, and James Farm takes to the stage with a sound that will remind you as much of salt of the earth modern Americana with both the bright and brooding notes of rock and hip-hop, as it will underscore the as yet unknown; an attribute that peeks through for the first time in the spiraling cinematic landscape that is “Chronos”. The songs on James Farm are composed with changes that often suggest the influence of classical movements, but with much less clearly defined separation between one section of a piece and the next. “Star Crossed” begins as a blues and froths to a rage, similar in feeling to the point in so many pieces of riot footage where the dogs are released upon a swelling crowd, only to disperse at the sound of gunshots and the sight of the lone victim; the song ending on a soft and sobering note.
That reflective tone carries into “Unravel”, a later track that is intricate melodically and equally haunting in tonality. It is music as joyride, with the unplanned decision to turn left or take the road less traveled as one that does not feel incorrect or forced, but completely understandable given the skill and imagination with which each piece is constructed; making arguably dangerous decisions in the moment and not a second sooner, precisely because you are able to maneuver so adeptly. In following this rubric, James Farm creates a sound built upon trust, both in the talents of each band member’s ability to lead and in the ability of each individual to trust his gut and the sound emanating from it. Punctuated by the slightly more standard feel of “If By Air,” James Farm rounds the corner of this release with a song well-suited to stage performance and illuminating the elements that make this song great in real-time; the players themselves. Closing with the lullaby of “Low Fives”, the track is both lo-fi and exemplary of the virtuosity of James Farm as a collective, in their ability to defer to subtlety and the depth of sound to be had therein. From each of member of the band, there have been established instances of greatness in their individual careers. Combined, they work in concert and flashes of brilliance, to set a new bar for themselves and the genre of Jazz as it continues to evolve.
Listen to James Farm in its entirety over at NPR’s First Listen until April 26!
Words by Karas Lamb