The Bumble Bee's View of the Garden:
Opinions on Jazz and other topics
The flora and fauna of the Jazz Garden are ever changing and fascinating.
In the Twentieth Century Jazz has developed from the syncopated two-step of ragtime and the early stride pianists through the innovations of Louis Armstrong in the ‘20s, the evolution of swing in the ‘30, the advent of bop in the ‘40s and a variety of experimental efforts in the ‘50s and ‘60s, to become a multifaceted art from in the last quarter of the century. There are now a wide array of styles that we recognize as part of the Jazz tradition, even though they can seem quite different from each other. Last time I reviewed a CD by local musicians who's work is in the more recently evolved styles once referred to as avant-garde, and I would like to introduce two more to you. Since these styles have their roots in the work of Sun-Ra, Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor which first surfaced in the mid and late fifties the term avant-garde seems a little strange to me at this point. Let me offer something of a definition of this music.
If we were to make an analogy between song-like melody and representational visual art then we could think of this newer Jazz as being like non-objective or "abstract" art. The elements of melody are there but they are not recognizable as songs. These musical elements become the source for musical development that is not tied to chord sequence or song form, following, instead, other expressive possibilities implicit in the material. It is akin to the way Joan Miro or Arshile Gorky took shapes suggestive of animals, or other organic things, to create compositions that do not relate, in a representational way, to the physical world of everyday life. If met with the expectation of a song to sing along with this music can be off-putting to some, much as "abstract" art is disappointing to those who expect a picture of something found in everyday experience. However, when we take these kinds of expressions, musical or visual, on their own terms we find fascinating stories, images, feelings, spaces etc.
On The Edge, features Tonkin Toys, a quintet led by veteran guitarist Dave Tonkin. The cover aptly expresses the spirit of playfulness and humor in this music. We see a composite photo of Dave piloting a toy spaceship high over the clouds of Earth. His band mates are visible through the craft's side windows, and include saxist Langley, guitarist Dan Knox, bassist Don Williams and drummer Eric Hughes. The music draws on R&B and Rock, the popular music, generally speaking, of the present time, just as the Boppers, and the early Jazz musicians before them, drew on the popular music of their day. There may be a radical difference between the sound of this music and a performance by Ruby Braff, for instance, but the process of taking the everyday elements of popular music and transforming them is essentially the same. That is why it is all Jazz.
In keeping with the approach described above, Dave and his band work most often with the rhythms and textures of their sources, rather than recognizable melodies. There is a strong sense of composition and arrangement here, however, that produces a well-paced set full of delights and surprises. All five (and sometimes six, with percussionist John Faggiano) of the players are sure- footed and confident in their improvisations and interplay. They play with sensitivity to each other, the compositions and the moment. If you have taken an interest in the late music of Miles Davis or the explorations of John Schofield you will feel at home with On The Edge.
The members of the trio Downtown Sound are the youngest of the musicians represented here, although one would probably not know that without seeing their pictures on the package their self-titled debut CD comes in. The music on this disc leans more towards the "New York loft scene," and opens with a composition by one of the foremost musicians associated with that way of playing, the alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe. The influence of Ornette Coleman is also very much in evidence, especially from his work with the same instrumentation in the ‘60s. Bassist Forbes Horton and his brother, drummer Nate are and excellent rhythm section. Each plays with a fine sense of tone and timing, giving saxophonist and sometime trumpeter, Jeremy Leclair the kind of support that lets him soar. Leclair plays both alto and baritone with a very well-developed tone and he is not too bad on trumpet, for a sax player. He is also an interesting composer, having written five of the eight selections on the disc.
As with the other CD the soloists display a good sense of form and drama, making this an adventurous set of interesting and very listenable music. Clearly these young men have had the support and encouragement of kindred spirits in the community. Matt Langley wrote the liner notes and there is a group improvisation dedicated to that life-long musical explorer, pianist Larry Garland. If you are a jazz listener who is interested in getting a handle on the "new Jazz," or if you already have developed a taste for adventurous music, I recommend these recordings to you highly. Not only is it good music, but you will be supporting some fine local artists as well. If you cannot find them contact me and I will put you in touch with the artists.
The Merrimack Valley Jazz Society has now officially started its fund raising drive to establish an endowed scholarship at UMass Lowell in the name of emeritus professor Rawn Spearman. To find out more and to get to know the Society, come to the Jam Session at Borders Books on the Daniel Webster Highway in Nashua, NH, on Saturday November 4, starting at 1:00 PM.