When it’s announced on the airwaves of NPR that you are “the next big jazz guitarist,” as Nir Felder was introduced back in 2010, expectations are bound to be high. And if you’ve spent your time plying your trade around Manhattan, Brooklyn and environs, as well as touring the world, working along with artists like Greg Osby, Meshell N’degeocello, Chuck Mangione, Jack DeJohnette, John Scofield, and Esperanza Spalding, expectations are certain to soar over the top. So with next month’s release of the guitarist’s debut album, Golden Age, when jazz fans will get a chance to sample Felder’s work as the leader of his own ensemble, they will be looking for great things.
They will not be disappointed.
Joined by pianist Aaron Parks, bassist Matt Penman, and Nate Smith on drums, Felder travels his way through 10 original compositions loosely connected to the examination of the idea of a golden age. Have we lived through a golden age? Are we living in one now? Has that gold turned to dross? Are we coming to a new golden age as the fiscal crisis of recent years seems to have passed? “So,” he says, “there is a lack of clarity about whether things are going great or they’re really bad, and the music reflects that.”
Now while there will no doubt be those who fail to see any one-to-one connection between the idea and the music in the album as a whole, there is no question it appears most clearly in at least three of the pieces. These are compositions that combine spoken-word samples from speeches by a variety of political, cultural and social leaders—including figures as diverse as Barbara Jordan and Elie Wiesel, Mario Cuomo and Lou Gehrig, Malcolm X and Richard Nixon. Sometimes you can recognize the voice, sometimes not, but always you are impressed with the seriousness of the project.
Felder has demonstrated his commitment to this material be making two of these songs available prior to the album’s release: “Lights,” the disc’s opening track, and “Sketch 2.” The third is the album’s final piece, “Before the Tsars.” These spoken word samples provide a thematic context not only for the specific tracks, but for the album as a whole. They paint the age, golden or otherwise.
Focused less on the individual player’s technical prowess, the ensemble aims at an aesthetic that privileges the music, the song. Whether it be the moody, almost dirge-like “Code,” with its nod to “Auld Lang Syne,” or the rhythmically adventurous “Memorial,” it is always about the music rather than the musician. This is not to say the Felder and his crew lack virtuosity. Take for example some of the solo work on “Ernest/Protector.” They can play with the best of them, but they work together to honor the music. And the totality—listen to “Bandits” and “Bandits ll”—is absolutely beautiful.
Nir Felder and his quartet have produced a jazz album you’ll want to listen to.