James Farm is a part-time jazz collective boasting a swift melodic kick, meaty but understated improvisational prowess and a strong compositional sense that speaks strongly to the band's often orderly sound.
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If all that makes the all-star quartet seem safe, don't fret. James Farm simply favors music that is less confrontational than the product of many like-minded jazz troupes. That provides the band's sophomore album, City Folk, with an appealing accessibility: the kind that usually relies on fusion and-or R&B accents. City Folk dismisses both with 10 original compositions (three each by saxophonist Joshua Redman, pianist Aaron Parks and bassist Matt Penman, and one by drummer Eric Harland).
Take Harland's North Star, for example. The rhythm section plays with stately confidence over a melody that is strong enough to carry the tune with natural grace. But it's also light enough for the bounce of Redman's tenor sax lead and Penman's limber bass lines to dance about. When Parks gently wrestles the melody away, Harland remains steadfast. The result is a song with the cohesion of a pop tune and the instrumental muscle of fusion. But the execution and intent is all straight-ahead jazz.
With a 20-plus year recording career under his own name to his credit, Redman is the marquee name in the James Farm lineup. To be sure, his glowing tenor tone lights up the soft-focus shuffle of City Folk's title tune and the more percolating East Coast rumble of Mr. E (both are Redman compositions). But if there is a dominant voice, it belongs to Parks. A refreshingly diverse stylist, both as a lead voice and as a rhythm player, the pianist is at the heart of City Folk's pronounced flow.
On Aspirin, he punches out organic funk on Yamaha electric piano under Harland's unhurried shuffle and Redman's playful tenor that alternates between restless punctuation and lyrical warmth. Then he lightly colors Jury's Out with simultaneous lead and melodic phrases to enhance a prevailing sense of cool (both tunes were written by Penman).
Mostly, though, City Folk is an album of feel and mood. It was cut exactly a year ago in Brooklyn, and one can only assume that this music was a reaction of sorts to dead-of-winter conditions. Although released in late October, the music's resulting temperament is perhaps best appreciated as January takes hold. Listen to the subtle orchestration provided by, of all things, mellotron, during the Parks tune Otherwise and you can sense the crafty melodic sweep of James Farm at work. It's a sign of welcome and warmth, a mix that makes this unassuming jazz treat something of a winter getaway.
Walter Tunis | Contributing Music Critic