On the evening of June 28th, James Farm – a jazz quartet featuring Joshua Redman on saxophone, Aaron Parks on piano, Matt Penman on bass, and Eric Harland on drums – took the stage at the Broadway Theatre as part of the Sasktel Saskatchewan Jazz Festival.
At their most accessible, James Farm were engaging and impressive, with their various original compositions (written by Redman, Parks and Penman) exhibiting a challenging array of complex melodies and rhythms that nonetheless managed to remain compelling to a non-specialist. Joshua Redman in particular was an outstanding performer, with a powerful yet controlled approach to the saxophone that allowed him to exploit the full range of the instrument’s expressive potential. More generally, the group’s stellar musicianship and obvious immersion in the material created numerous exciting moments. The facial expressions of the other band members during solos made the improvisational nature of their music quite clear, with a variety of grins, nods and occasional quizzical head-tilts. Moreover, their own engagement with the creative output of their band mates created a sort of feedback loop with the audience.
Listening to the group, it also became quite obvious that they were drawing upon a broad passel of musical influences, from bebop and the Coltrane-esque “wall of noise,” to funk and classical, with one stand-out composition drawing on a complex interplay between piano and percussion that sounded particularly “math rock-y” (think EP-C era Battles).
All of this being said, there were certain portions of the quartet’s performance that may have pushed the comfort zone of a less-seasoned jazz fan. In these wildly experimental numbers, there were sections that, to the untrained ear, simply sounded like a fight for rhythmic dominance between the bass and the drums. While these expressionistic displays likely contained some sort of erudite rationale (likely involving “polyrhythms”), these components of the performance were at least somewhat inaccessible.
The approval of the crowd on hand was definitely evident, as cheers and applause (not to mention the speed at which they rose for the standing ovation) clearly telegraphed their profound appreciation. While some curmudgeons complain about the Jazz Festival’s move towards more eclecticism in their programming, I’d argue that shows like Redman’s James Farm indicate the Festival’s continued commitment to showcasing exciting experimental modern jazz music.
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