MP3: Aaron Parks, "Nemesis" (click to listen, right/ctrl-click to download)
From Invisible Cinema. Aaron Parks, piano; Mike Moreno, guitar; Matt Penman, bass; Eric Harland, drums. Posted with permission of the artist.
So clearly the J&R MusicFest people do not fuck around when it comes to punctuality. Last night's mini jazz showcase was scheduled to start at 5 PM. I walked up at 5:02 and Aaron Parks & co. were already a couple of minutes into the anthemic 7/4 rocker "Nemesis" (see above). You know, even Carnegie Hall starts at five after.
Anyway, Aaron's Blue Note debut (and his first record as a leader in six years) dropped on Tuesday and he's been a busy boy this week, co-headlining (with Kurt Rosenwinkel) four sets over two nights at Smalls earlier in the week, and then this. I was at the first Small's set Tuesday night, sitting directly behind Aaron's piano bench (onstage, in fact, on the Rhodes bench), and the experience was kind of mind-blowing. Tuesday night was also the first time Kurt and Kendrick played together -- I do not believe it will be the last. The drummer on the record is Eric Harland, who is also great, but as I overheard one young jazz student at last night's hit tell his compatriot: "I love Kendrick's style, it's so fucking marching band."
The thing is, though, Kendrick is boundlessly inventive -- I've heard him play Aaron's music several times and he's always surprising me. One of his newly acquired toys are these special drum mallets with shakers inside the mallets -- he used them in dramatically different ways on Tuesday and Friday. And nobody plays the surging multimetric straight-eighth grooves that have become the lingua franca of modern mainstream jazz better than Kendrick.
As for the leader, Aaron has a real gift for spinning memorable, attractively folksy themes (like the pentatonic-based "Peaceful Warrior," which I have heard in a few different incarnations over the years) into mutlisection long-form workouts. He's always been kind of a scary technical wunderkind (like many jazz pianists, his piano guru is Sofia Rosoff) but what makes his recent music a thrill to listen to is the combination of effusive joy and an ambitious, architectural sense of structure and large-scale design.
At this point the music industry's operatically extended death throes, EMI releasing a creative jazz record by an up-and-coming artist kind of feels like staging a jam session on the Hindenburg, but hey, I am not complaining. Good on them for putting Invisible Cinemas out there, and also putting some of that major-label mojo behind an eminently worthy young musician.
WBGO's Josh Jackson has a nice interview with Aaron (including some live-in-the-studio versions of songs from Invisible Cineams). BGO aslo recorded the J&R Fest and all of these performances should be available for streaming
soonish now. When that happens, I will update this post. (Post has been updated.)
[As always, I don't pretend to be remotely objective about anything I write here, but especially not about Aaron -- he is a friend, he's subbed in Society rehearsals a few times, and he's the person responsible for introducing me to Lizz Wright. But, you know, if objectivity is your thing, what are you even doing reading blogs in the first place?]
Singer and bassist Esperanza Spalding has had the kind of storybook success I honestly did not think was still even possible for a jazz artist -- she grew up home-schooled in a single-parent family in Portland, Oregon, landed a full ride at Berklee, was hired to teach bass at her alma mater as soon as she graduated, started gigging with Joe Lovano, put out a couple of records as a leader, and recently ended up playing on Letterman(!) and -- like Nico Muhly -- featured in the Times' Fashion & Style section.
This was my first time hearing her. Live, she's an engaging and charismatic performer with a wispy, attractive voice. She easily enthralled the big, diverse crowd, especially on the neo-soulish "Precious," and a cover of Nina Simone's "Wild Is The Wind." I'd like to hear her inhabit the songs a bit more -- Esperanza somtimes comes off as self-consciously putting on a performance instead of sublimating herself into the song. She's hardly alone in this -- jazz singers in general tend to be more concerned with sound than story -- but I have trouble connecting to that.
My other gripe was that for most of the set it, was well-nigh impossible to hear her bass playing. You could feel her notes, sure, but there was practically no pitch definition, and the bass drum was amplified so excessively it masked most of the low-end frequencies anyway. Now I love the communal experience of the outdoor summer gigs, and I'm glad that this year there are a few more jazz shows in the mix, but sweet jeebus is the live sound at these things ever atrocious. I'd like to catch her band again under more favorable sonic circumstances.
Mallet percussionist Dave Samuels -- of Spyro Gyra fame -- led his Caribbean Jazz Project in an energetic set that included the Dizzy Gillespie-Chano Pozo classic "Wachi Wara" and a Afro-Carribeanized versions of Oliver Nelson's "Stolen Moments" and Monk's "Bemsha Swing." The band is made up of very talented players, but the set suffered from a lack of contrast -- I wanted to hear more dynamic variation, more ebb and flow, more drama.
It's been a long time since I've heard Roy Hargrove and I wasn't exactly sure what to expect. He's spent recent years concentrating on groove-oriented fusion projects and hiphop collaborations, but his most recent album, Earfood, is a back-to-bop testament. Roy brought the Earfood band to City Hall Park -- Justin Robinson, alto sax; Gerald Clayton, piano; Danton Boller, bass; Montez Coleman, drums -- and any worries I might had about dry, lifeless museum jazz were quickly dispelled by Coleman's swirling, billowing energy and Hargrove's swaggering intensity. (Dig the sneakers with the shiny black suit.) Clayton was another highlight, especially his impressive stopped-string work during his solo on a funky romp through Cedar Walton's "I'm Not So Sure." Hargrove showed us a few different facets of himself over the set, reaching for the fluegelhorn on an uncannily intimate ballad, but he seemed happiest when he was soaring out above the furiously churning rhythm section. Seriously, Montez Coleman is a total badass and he makes the perfect foil for Roy's unbound exuberance. A really fun closing set.
More pictures below the fold...