The Fly Trio has at long last released the follow up to their great-sounding debut – Fly. Now it may be because this is my first stab at record reviewership – but this record has got me really stumped. I just can’t decide what side to come down on. For starters.... this really SHOULD be a great record ... on the basis of the personnel, that is. It hit me one night listening to this trio at the Belrussian church in Brooklyn. The turnout at the concert was relatively humble that night ..... and it suddenly struck me how bizarre (at what a treat it was for me, really) to see this group in an intimate setting. I mean, these guys are currently, THE heavyweights of jazz. Here were Larry Grenadier and Jeff Ballard, the bass/drums unit for the Brad Mehldau trio, undoubtedly the most artistically-influential AND popular (a tough mix to pull off!) jazz trio of the last 10 years. To top that, the trio had recently been playing with Pat Metheny, probably the most influential jazz artist of the 10 years preceding and still probably the biggest seller in the jazz market. (Popular as he is, Brad Mehldau can still occasionally do gigs at ‘small’ clubs like the Village Vanguard. Pat Metheny is a lot closer to Madison Square Garden audience). It seems from objective measurements that these two are at the top of the jazz game. And Mark Turner... although one can’t quite assign the same level of fame to him ... is certainly recognized as one of the leading saxophonists of his generations (this is sounding too much like a jazz review already!). So with these three making a record.... one already expects that the result is going to be pretty impressive. Maybe bringing that attitude to it is my problem....... but I can’t quite convince myself that this is a great album (and it makes me feel a little guilty to be quite honest!). I’m torn....let’s break it down.
Some things I really like:
Larry Grenadier absolutely sets the standard for modern acoustic bass sound and feel. He has done so for the last ten years (with hot competition from Ben Street and Eric Revis and Reginald Veal in my opinion). No one combines woody, clear, punch, relax, drive and fat into one note quite as well as he does. His pitch and rhythmic placement are literally unparalleled (and I mean literal in the literal sense here). So as a bass player, it’s tough not to enjoy listening to this album.... it’s just such good bass playing.
Larry and Jeff are absolutely unwavering in their ensemble. They go beyond being a ‘tight’ rhythm section. They are tight (they ought to be, they’ve played together plenty!). But they can also phrase perfectly together.... pull one part of the measure back and resolve the time in the same way at the end the phrase. They sound tight, but they are by no means mechanical.
The Sound of this record is wonderfully refreshing and represents a departure for both the group and for label (Fly is now on ECM – good work!). The recording sounds like you are sitting in the room with group – it sounds like a chamber recording. Gone is the signature ECM reverb – the group sounds like they are sitting right in front of you.
First, I’ve thought a lot about what Mark Turner is going for in his playing. Lots of people love him ...... and saxophone players in particular never fail to have a deep respect for him. But I have never been able to get excited by him. It sounds to me like he has taken regular jazz saxophone playing and removed all humanistic inflections and emotive gestures. Or, to put it another way, he has reduced his playing to pure content and removed all style – all affectation. Now.... this isn’t necessarily as bad as it sounds...... everyone does this to some degree. Focusing on content and pruning away any clichéd gestures that may cloud that content or dress up shoddy content is certainly a noble pursuit. No one wants to sound like Kenny G (whose saxophone style is all affectation and no content!), and most modern musicians tend to steer clear of a sound as stylistic even as Johnny Griffin or Ben Webster (or even Charlie Parker – for all the deep content in his lines – he was a bluesy player!). But in my opinion with Mark’s playing.... it’s just too much! .....at least it’s too much for me. I crave to hear some of the emotive, romantic intent behind his impressive content. And there’s just almost none of it. He’s even done it to his time feel. Listening to his lines... it sounds as if he calculated what the ratio of eighth note lengths would be for modern swing feel (say 58:42 – just slightly straightened out from the 66:33 triplet subdivision of classic swing eighth notes) and extrapolated it (perfectly) to all eighth notes at all tempos. Now... one caveat ... his playing definitely doesn’t sound ‘like a computer’. The careful, sensitive listener can detect a musical soul motivating his phrases. Just for my tastes....I would like to hear the human element of the music taking at least a little more priority.
Second, this album has got me thinking a lot about synthesis. Usually it is referred to as group interaction. But it goes deeper than that..... or at least, it is more elusive than that. The great jazz ‘ensembles’ of history (I’m thinking about John Coltrane’s Quartet, Bill Evan’s classic trio, Miles Davis’s Quintets, Keith Jarret’s American Quartet) have an ensemble presence that goes deeper than something you can directly point to. One is tempted to define interaction as something as simple as.... ‘Well, the drummer played figure A which cued the pianist and bassist to play response B a bar later’. Certainly that kind of call/response is a necessary component of a great ensemble. Any group that works well together will share a common rhythmic, harmonic and textural language that they can all draw on and reference (even better .... they not only share one, but develop their very own ..... as is the case with all the groups I cited above). A group that has done this can execute this kind of call/response at all musical levels (melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, textural, ect....). At this point the call/response exercise goes far beyond the purely mechanical knee-jerk response and becomes the elements of an extended musical dialogue that the group weaves in each performance. But the synthesis that happens when an ensemble becomes more than the sum of its parts (the synergetic experience) goes even deeper than this. It is exceedingly difficult to define, but it is not hidden..... you can definitely hear this kind of synthesis. It has to do with a group moving from the same collective motivations – moving towards the same unstated musical goals – breathing in the same pace – pushing/allowing the music with the same urgency/patience – and the audible evidence of the ensemble’s common purpose to transcend the musical building blocks within each song. To my ears, this album doesn’t quite get to this kind of synthesis. It starts out with some pretty impressive parts (as I mentioned at the top of the article, these are some of the best young players on the jazz scene today), but I don’t hear it getting beyond the sum of these parts. Another way to put it: If three masters get together to make a trio record... will they produce a masterful record?