Jason Palmer’s 2-CD Set a Winner


WP 2019 - 2RHYME AND REASON / PALMER: Herbs in a Glass. Rhyme and Reason. Blue Grotto. Sadhana. The Hampton Inn (for Alan). Mark’s Place. Waltz for Diana. Kalispel Bay / Jason Palmer, tpt; Mark Turner, t-sax; Matt Brewer, bs; Kendrick Scott, dm / Giant Step Arts (no number) (live: Jazz Gallery, New York, June 7-8, 2018)

This splendid double-CD set, scheduled for release on March 1, was produced by a new non-profit label begun by photographer and recording engineer Jimmy Katz, Giant Step Arts. The label not only records artists but commissions new works and presents premiere performances, provides the artists with 800 physical CDs as well as digital downloads to sell directly. The artists thus have complete control of their music and own their own masters while Giant Step does most of the work for you, including PR support for the recordings including promo photos and, if required, videos.

I’ve seen one review of this album online, the first sentence of which I had to read twice because I couldn’t believe my eyes: “Jazz albums without chordal instruments can sometimes sound arid.” Say what?!? Did the classic Gerry Mulligan-Chet Baker Quartet sound arid to you? Or Ornette Coleman’s original group? They didn’t sound that way to me, and neither does Palmer’s wonderful quartet. And oh, by the way, a double bass can indeed play chords!

Nor is the music on this wonderful set arid. Palmer, who has played with Roy Haynes, Herbie Hancock, Jimmy Smith and Roy Hargrove (as well as with Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra), plays in a crisp, angular style that is surprisingly sparse. Indeed, his style reminds me, in a way, of a modern Bix Beiderbecke; as Eddie Condon once said of Bix, his tone sounds like “bullets hitting a bell.” In his improvisations, he makes every note count. Nothing sounds superfluous; everything fits together as if the music he played were fully scored, not improvised.

Moreover, my allusion earlier to the Ornette Coleman Quartet is particularly apt in the case of his bassist, Matt Brewer, who plays in a fulsome style, continually shifting the underlying harmony by implying chords even if they are not fully fleshed out. It’s the sort of thing that Charlie Haden did so well with Ornette. Kendrick Scott is the type of drummer who is also constantly shifting the beat via his stress rhythms, yet who also keeps perfect time. And tenor saxist Mark Turner is very fine, too, albeit more adventurous in terms of the notes he selects and less allied to the structure of each piece.

The result in fast numbers, such as the opening Herbs in a Glass, is of a continuous whirl of music in which Brewer is both harmonic underpinning and principal timekeeper, leading Palmer and Turner through the labyrinth of the tune’s structure while Scott loosens and breaks up the rhythm. Their music is more tonal and less free than Coleman’s but no less exciting or intriguing. Rhyme and Reason opens with an extended a cappella solo by Palmer before being joined by the rest of the quartet, with a double-time flurry of notes at the 2:25 mark. Once again, the excellent structure of Palmer’s composition is what draws the listener inward; the solos are what keep one listening. The leader’s extended solo is an object-lesson on how to construct a pair of choruses and still retain a coherent narrative, but Turner is also very fine on this one in his own way. Brewer also has a solo on this one, and it’s very fine.

Blue Grotto has an asymmetric beat, opening with a bass solo before Palmer and Turner enter to play the odd melody. Although there is a definite underlying structure here, the piece sounds more reduced to essentials and improvised as it moves from section to section. There’s a nice, intricate three-way conversation between the two horns and the bassist at the 2:25 mark that lasts for a while, and the rhythm becomes quite complex at 4:33 into the piece. Palmer also plays an extended solo introduction to Sadhana, which he describes as a piece based on “routine spiritual practice and the routine surrendering of the ego through activities such as meditation, yoga, chanting or prayer.” Yet it’s a surprisingly lively piece, with a bright uptempo line and an almost Coleman-like solo from Turner. The fast, continually churning rhythm moves it like greased lightning. The leader’s solo skips about like a lamb in a field on a bright spring morning and Scott’s drum solo continues to dissect the oddly-spaced 6/8 beat in numerous small ways.

On The Hampton Inn it is the drummer who introduces the song and the band, giving it a strong calypso feel. The strong, churning rhythm continues throughout, with Palmer’s solo being unusually exploratory, going outside the tune’s structure with impunity. By contrast, on this one, it is Turner who is more circumspect, adhering closer to the melodic line with great imagination. Mark’s Place is a reference to Mark Turner’s song Jacky’s Place. The notes indicate that Palmer has transposed Turner’s chords up a fifth and changed the original 5/4 pulse to 6/4. Again it is Brewer who introduces the song, joined at 2:18 by the drums and then, at 2:42, by the horns. It’s a light, airy song with an almost minimal melodic structure. When Palmer enters, he plays an intriguing sequence of rapid triplet and double-time figures interspersed with upward rips into his top register. Scott also has an extended and intricate solo on this one.

The lovely Waltz for Diana is a nod to Bill Evans’ Waltz for Debby and Kurt Rosenwinkel’s Dream of the Old. Although a waltz, the stress beats move around like blinking lights on a Christmas tree, yet the band is able to keep up with all of them. The leader manages to throw in a quite from My Favorite Things in the midst of his solo. Brewer then plays a very intriguing improvised duet with Turner, who plays one of his finest solos here. The finale, Kalispel Bay, is a jaunty tune written by Palmer in an hour on—of all things—a ukulele! It’s a peppy tune but not one of his tightest musical structures, yet the soloists and rhythm section respond well to it, Turner in particular with what is, for me, his most tightly-constructed solo.

I’m not quite prepared to put Jason Palmer on as high a pedestal as Clifford Brown, but as musical constructionists go, he is clearly one of the greatest I’ve heard in the past half-century. No two ways about it, this is a stunning album which bears repeated and careful listening.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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