James Farm produces a fierce groove from a variety of styles
Asked post-show about the story behind the group’s name, James Farm’s tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman said, “You have to ask Eric.’’ That’s drummer Eric Harland, who shrugged and replied, “It’s just a name.’’ But it’s really more than that; it signifies the fifth entity emerging from this collaboration between four superb musicians: Redman, Harland, pianist Aaron Parks, and bassist Matt Penman, all established or rising stars in their own right.
While their acoustic instrumentation, virtuosity, and improvisational brio scream jazz, their music displays influences from all over the map, including classical, rock, ambient, and electronica. James Farm has big ears. And the quartet grooves fiercely. Seemingly the only rhythm they don’t essay is straight-ahead swing.
Friday night, before an enthusiastic, jam-packed Berklee Performance Center audience, James Farm played original compositions drawn from what Redman announced was, “our latest, greatest, and only CD.’’ It’s hard to imagine many of these pieces - more cinematically moody than melodic - being taken up by other performers. But they certainly provide near-perfect launching pads for these particular players.
The opening number, the Penman penned “1981,’’ proved an apt introduction to James Farm’s terrain. Over repetitive piano chords and reggae-reminiscent rhythms, Redman stated the blunt, edgy theme. Harland shifted into backbeat overdrive as Redman’s sax slithered then soared. The temperature cooled for Parks’s almost ambient, echoing piano. A mellow, molasses-slow Redman returned, to Harland’s rattlesnake rim-shots. As the saxophone solo ramped up, the band gradually established a rhythmically free, almost ritualistic atmosphere.
Redman’s “If by Air’’ began with breathy unaccompanied saxophone and built to a compelling 6/8 rhythm beneath the lyrical melody. Penman’s dramatic “Coax’’ featured an insistent ground of bass and tumbling percussion, overlaid with liquid piano and leaping saxophone. Redman’s catchy “Polliwog’’ brought to mind an amalgam of Vince Guaraldi and techno, with a tinge of R&B.
Parks’s reverential waltz, “Bijou,’’ provided a perfect change of pace, featuring a soulful, simpatico piano-sax dialogue. His ominous, chiming “Chronos’’ would make a perfect accompaniment to the peak scene of a tense action movie. The final number, Harland’s “I-10,’’ surely sated those craving more cowbell, as Harland set off an astonishing display of percussive fireworks over a steady cowbell beat, all wrought from his small-looking, big-sounding kit.
A standing ovation brought the band back for an encore: Penman’s pensive “Low Fives,’’ a fine showcase for his rich, woody bass tone and a welcome cool-down from the evening’s preceding pyrotechnics.
Kevin Lowenthal can be reached at email@example.com.