November 2005

James Carter and Cyrus Chestnut: Hit the Pavement

The indie-rock explosion of the 1990s charmed a generation of college hipsters and even reached out to the mainstream, but it didn't inspire too many jazz musicians. Indie vets Yo La Tengo and Sonic Youth may like to play with jazz musicians, but you don't hear jazz musicians playing their music. Yes, the Bad Plus and Brad Mehldau have looked to rock and pop for inspiration, but the often antivirtuosic nature of indie rock doesn't usually give jazz musicians much to chew on.

High school pals David Elkins and Jake Cohn may not be jazz musicians, but they really wanted jazz musicians to play the music of Pavement, one of the bigger and more beloved college-rock bands of the last decade. Gold Sounds, the debut release on Cohn and Elkins' new label, Brown Brothers, attempts the incongruous and fills a niche that may not exist. The CD features a handpicked group of well-known jazz mainstreamers assembled solely to play the mischievous rock music of Pavement.

As Cohn explains it, Elkins had at various times exposed him to musicians and music he came to love: saxophonist James Carter, pianist Cyrus Chestnut and the Pavement album Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain among them. When they failed to secure the U.S. rights for U.K. singer/songwriter Kathryn Williams' new record-their first choice for the debut Brown Brothers release-they decided to try and combine their personal favorites on a single recording. "We asked ourselves one question: What album would we love to own that does not exist?" says Cohn, sounding like a fantasy baseball enthusiast.

That record they would love to own (in fact, own many copies of) features both Carter and Chestnut performing music from Pavement's Slanted and Enchanted, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Brighten the Corners and Terror Twilight. (Cohn didn't cotton to Wowee-Zowee until after the recording session, hence that record's conspicuous absence.) Cohn and Elkins wanted to complete the band with bassist Reginald Veal and drummer Herlin Riley ever since they heard the two perform as part of the Wynton Marsalis septet in 2003. Veal signed on but Riley couldn't get out of touring commitments, so drummer Ali Jackson took his place.

While the Brown Brothers were clearly on a fan's mission-"We could not deal with the fact that Pavement broke up and we would not hear any new Pavement music," says Cohn-the jazz musicians didn't know what to expect.

Chestnut had not heard a bar of Pavement before getting the call for the gig. "They sent me records of the band, and I took a listen to them and I have to admit that it was...." He pauses.... "...it was different listening. But I really did enjoy it. I really did enjoy how the group put the songs together and the organic feel."

Carter, as it turned out, at least knew Pavement's near-hit "Cut Your Hair"-from watching his favorite cartoon. "[Brown Brothers] pretty much loaded us down with a DVD of their live concerts as well as some recordings," says Carter. "I come to find out I'd actually heard the group before. I'm a Beavis and Butt-head fan from back in the day. You know how they'd comment on videos, say that it sucked and change the channel? In this one episode, the video to "Cut Your Hair" came on. That was a cool tune, you know? It was definitely one of those tunes you could relate to. As soon as I heard the hook-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo, doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-I thought, 'Oh, it's that group. I know this tune.'"

Pavement fans will recognize the music on Gold Sounds, but the CD is clearly a jazz record. Pavement's singer, Stephen Malkmus, sang-shouted his quirky lyrics over thickets of guitar and abrupt changes in tone. On Gold Sounds, Carter channels some of that quirk as he jostles Malkmus' melodies. "Malkmus is singing in between tones," explains Carter. "In order to get into that and have a laidback/urgent feel at the same time, that definitely took some loosening up. I just externalized it through the horn."

Malkmus chuckles at Carter's remarks, and offers perhaps a more honest explanation: "That just means I'm out of tune." He's candid about how he views the concept of a jazz band playing his music, saying, "Well, I thought it was pretty insane-and then to get all these heavy guys on there." But as it turns out, he's all for it, even when he's told that the tribute was played by jazzmen whose own music is untouched by Pavement's influence.

"That's all the better as far as I'm concerned," Malkmus says. "It's definitely going to make for a real assessment of what's there instead of being biased by what you liked in it all the time. They were just like, 'Whatever, this guy can barely sing, I can find something in here, though. We can play anything.' And obviously if they're jazz musicians, the really great people are able to improvise melodically and find new and weird things in something. It's about their interpretation more than the basic material."

Inevitably, the Gold Sounds band hits their stride running through the Pavement discography, recasting these rock songs as blowing vehicles. They play with Pavement's sense of unhinged fun and taste for the abrupt, but speak in a jazz musician's language, heavy with blues touches, walking bass lines and gospel-inflected contributions from Chestnut on the piano, Hammond B3 and Fender Rhodes. In his jaunty solo piano coda, Chestnut makes the fractured noise of "Trigger Cut" sound about five decades older than it actually is. And "Cut Your Hair" becomes something of an R&B slow-jam, with Carter digging deep for soulfulness in a tune that was, as Pavement played it, rife with irony and sarcasm. "That one seemed like it could be some deep conceptual joke," offers Malkmus.
"The effort was just to get an understanding of the content, work within the content," Chestnut says. "We weren't trying to fix anything or break anything. We were just making our own collective interpretation of it."

As Carter explains, the band wanted to bring Pavement's rock energy and method to a jazz player's aesthetic. "We all watched the [Pavement live performance] documentary together and we got an idea of what the creative process of Pavement was all about," Carter says. "And that was basically a 'just do it' sort of thing, as opposed to getting all cerebral with it. We all came up with ideas. For example, I came up with the arrangement to 'Platform Blues.' It just seemed to work to have the sarrusophone doubling on the bottom. I had a Grand Wazoo moment," Carter says, referencing Frank Zappa's wild jazz-rock album. "That's pretty much how I got flowing."

If Carter and Chestnut came through this experience with a new appreciation for indie rock, however, they aren't saying. On the topic, the two were nothing if not diplomatic.

"I'm always interested in other points of view," says Chestnut. "I think we should be interested in all types of music. I believe our elders have always been interested in all kinds of music."

"If music is supposed to be the healing force of the universe," Carter says, "why wouldn't you want to stock your medicine cabinet?"

Well, if the Brown Brothers sent, say, a stack of Guided by Voices CDs and an offer, would Carter be open to that? "Oh, I'm always open," he says. "I never close."

Additional reporting by Russell Carlson

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