People have often asked me how I decide to buy a piece of music, especially when it's a "blind" purchase, meaning that I know neither the artist nor any of the side musicians. The secret revolves around one word: keyboards. No matter what the instrumentation lineup is, if I see that word on the back of the CD, I am less likely to pull the purchase trigger. With all due respect to people like Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, many a jazz recording has been ruined by overzealous electronics.
Now, what about a variant: the synthesizer? Does the fat tone of a big 'ole analog synth fit into the modern jazz realm? Yes, quite nicely. Especially if you're talking about James Carney.
I was hooked right from the three ominous low tones that open "Power" — tones that dug in and served as motif that the rest of Carney's band improvises over. As the song progresses, the responsibility of forwarding the theme is passed between players, most notable Carney and bassist Chris Lightcap. It's a great shift in focus when the bass takes over and Carney switches from synth to piano.
Tribute must be paid to Carney's instincts and sensitivity: though the analog is present on several tunes ("Power,"Shame," "Smog Cutter"), it's not allowed to overwhelm the material. Even more good news: Carey's play is just as inspired at the piano.
Though I have to say that the opening track is my favorite (if nothing else, for that lovely, throbbing synth statement), the are some very strong contenders on the rest of the album. "The Poetry Wall" finds the piano settling in to a wicked ostinato that's soon shadowed by drummer Mark Ferber. The horn section (Ralph Alessi/trumpet, Tony Malaby/tenor, Josh Roseman/trombone, Peter Epstein/soprano sax) then takes a group turn before splitting off into solo-land. Epstein reminds us all of just how much the soprano sax can burn. Just as wide-ranging but maybe a little more "out," is "It's Always Cold When Your Leaving." What starts out as a fairly 'normal' jazz groove turns into a trip through Cecil Taylor land. I can't say enough about Carney's band. They run though several styles on this selection and make it seem perfectly easy and normal!
Check out the James Carney Group's Green-Wood if you're in the mood to expand your horizons without straining anything. Oh, and there's no need to be scared off by that 'keyboards' word.