James Farm deals in pop jazz – or that’s the party line at least. And there’s some truth to it. In their music the head-solo-head design of freewheeling improv is subbed out for something more contained: verse-chorus-verse dynamics with thoughtfully scripted areas of extrapolation. Both bassist Matt Penman and saxophonist Joshua Redman have talked about the primacy of “song” in the band’s work, and on their striking second album, a genuflection to melody rivals the respect received by another key component: architecture. How much so? When I first put it on, without looking at the credits, I thought they were starting City Folk (Nonesuch) with an update of Squeeze’s “Tempted.”
This new 10-track program is the product of four composers with an agreed-upon approach. The tunes aren’t beholden to a jazz past that boasts the trad rules of bop, fusion or free. Rather, this is modern instrumental music that leaves room for jazz-centric solos. Each piece is a discrete world, bent on establishing a palpable mood and delivering an emotional punch that might be deemed theatrical. Indeed the term “cinematic” has been tossed around regarding such stuff ever since pianist Aaron Parks dropped 2008’s likeminded Invisible Cinema (Parks and drummer Eric Harland round out the quartet). Like The President and Kneebody before them, James Farm is all about remaking jazz structures to suit its own catholic interests and a younger audience’s needs.
What’s impressive here is the ensemble’s bond and the agility of the players to have distinct sections of each piece flow into one another. Harland’s “North Star” seems like a dreamy paean to the cosmos, and it starts with a fetching lilt. But by the time Redman’s blowing an extravagant solo and the band it crushing a crescendo, you scratch your head: how, exactly did they get here? The have away with ballads, too. Parks’ “Farm” could well serve a film’s closing credits – it’s just expressive enough to summarize about four wistful emotions at once. Indeed, even if a couple of the pieces seem a tad contrived, there’s so much eloquence in play here it feels that a true band has come into its own.