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.
Formally there was a balance of the expected and the exploratory. Themes opened and returned and ample solo time was given, but then a classically informed piano interlude would intercut a piece, or the sections would end and begin as with movements in a symphony. It all felt democratic, even as the players’ stylistic uniqueness came to the fore: Redman, with his cloudless, impeccably intonated middle-register tone that gave way to thrilling altissimo cries during the climaxes of his solos; Penman, underscoring the woodiness of his sound with lyrical legato phrasing; and Harland, a remarkably self-aware texturalist who helped make the solos feel more like statements of group catharsis. He also, per usual, indicated how jazz drummers will sound in decades to come, utilizing trashy, staccato cymbal sounds uncommon in a jazz context and laying down backbeats with a precision that was sampler-ready. That his compositional offering, “I-10,” began with an unaccompanied drum solo was the most self-involved thing about this set, but he deserved the spotlight.