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James Farm: City Folk

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On City Folk the heralded quartet James Farm indicates they are in it for the long haul. The song-based, ensemble-first aesthetic that guided their eponymous debut three years ago has only deepened, with the composers taking more liberties than the soloists in flexing the structures of individual tunes. Once again, a program of 10 originals is parsed out with three compositions apiece for pianist Aaron Parks, saxophonist Joshua Redman and bassist Matt Penman, and one for drummer Eric Harland. Each has signature traits as a composer-Parks has an affinity for ephemeral, melancholy beauty, while Harland inevitably works his songs into a propulsive spree, for example. But because all four possess youthful, cosmopolitan taste and acute familiarity with each other’s playing and writing styles, they are both willing and able to cover an enormous amount of terrain with virtuoso synergy. They are equally adept at toying with a staccato vamp in postmodern fashion like the Bad Plus, spiraling off into fusion grandeur like Return to Forever, or nestling into bucolic impressionism à la Oregon.

Redman is the marquee name, of course, but Parks feels like the most irreplaceable member. His songs have elliptical titles (“Unknown,” “Otherwise”) that make sense when you hear them. “Unknown” is initially bathed in a modal gauze that could be a simulation for swimming in air, with Redman tooling lightly on soprano and Harland offering a dirge-like beat. Before it’s over, Parks has subsumed a Wurlitzer and vocals into the mix (neither is obvious) and the swimmer is soaring/floating on his angelic electric keys before drifting down gently. Yet his third song, “Farms” is a mostly simple and straightforward vehicle for Redman’s exquisite tenor.

Sometimes you get lost in the mazes of these song-suites-Redman’s “Mr. E” is particularly bewildering. But the band doesn’t, venturing in creative synchronization that becomes oblong or dilapidated only by choice. Harland is a maestro at suddenly menacing tension-and-release, and Redman’s surging saxophone gallops have become increasingly spectacular over the years. But the band mostly keeps this potent powder dry. The restraint is beguiling. But they’re city folk, after all.

Originally Published