James Farm Live in Concert in Maryland
The collective quartet James Farm, with tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman, pianist Aaron Parks, bassist Matt Penman and drummer Eric Harland, makes a lot of jazz and jazz-related music seem either old-fashioned or pandering. Notions like having a bandleader, standard repertory and predictable forms, rounds of solos with subordinate accompaniment, and pure swing don’t seem as attractive of a sudden. Likewise, heavy-handed ideas about what jazz should do to win over that idealized youth demographic-be explicitly fused with hip-hop or funk or indie-rock-are made even more cumbersome. It’s a thoroughly modern-sounding jazz band making a lot of good choices, and it doesn’t seem to be trying too hard. On Sunday night at the University of Maryland in College Park, it was easy to see that this was a working, touring outfit with a shared philosophy and preexisting rapport. (Redman, Penman and Harland played in the same incarnation of the SFJAZZ Collective, and the drummer and bassist joined Parks on his Invisible Cinema, the most undersung Blue Note debut in recent memory.)
Writing lean, strong melodies is the first thing this quartet gets right; the band’s tunes sounded memorable and likeable-Mehldau-ian, let’s say-but not pop-cute. Redman’s “Polliwog” settled into the middle ground between Monk and Wayne Shorter; Penman’s “1981” could have scored a smart legal drama. Parks’ “Bijou” floated along with a combination of gospel comfort and the Heartland hominess associated with Pat Metheny. Occasionally, as on Parks’ “Chronos,” with its minor pulse and twitch of Eastern melody, things would turn toward the self-serious. But even that tune inspired the sort of concert listening I more readily apply to popular music. I’d heard the band’s new self-titled release a good amount leading up to this, and was looking forward to hearing those specific motifs recreated live.