Pianist-composer Noah Baerman’s latest album Ripples, due for release on March 11, is dedicated to Margie Pozefsky, his aunt, a “tireless philanthropist and activist” who died in 2012. In a dedicatory passage, Baerman explains the album’s metaphoric title: benevolent actions have “a ripple effect,” often going beyond what would seem to be their immediate impact. A firm believer in art and music, especially as a benevolent force for “a better, kinder world,” Baerman looks to his work to help “create these positive ripples.”
Leaving aside any of the aesthetic quibbles of the art for art’s sake faithful and recognizing the constantly lengthening historical parade of musical activists, a critic has little trouble applauding Baerman’s intentions, but in some sense that merely begs the question. Good intentions are fine, but good intentions and good music are two different things. The question for the listener is whether the music is any good, not the good deeds the musician intended.
That said, it is with some relief that I report Baerman’s music is as good as his intentions. Ripples is an excellent album, with some performance gems. Basically the disc features the work of two separate Baerman ensembles—the Jazz Samaritan Alliance and a chamber octet featuring Baerman’s trio supplemented by strings, a flute, and a clarinet. There is a vocal choir added on a couple of tracks and even a special guest or two shows up to help out here and there.
Nine of the album’s 10 songs are Baerman originals. The one exception is the Samaritan Alliance’s emotionally charged reworking of the traditional “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” which they call “Motherless.” Chris Dingman opens with the melody on vibraphone and Jimmy Greene and Kris Allen work the saxes. The Alliance also plays on two other pieces: ”Peeling the Onion” and “Lester.” They are joined by bassist Linda Oh on both and pianist Kenny Barron on the latter. Like most of the original material on the disc, both songs are occasional pieces. The first by occasioned by a friend suffering from lung cancer and the second by the suicide of a youth who had been in foster care.
The trio, chamber ensemble and choir work together on the opening song, a dynamic call to action titled “Time is Now.” Their other pieces are “The Outer Circle,” another track dedicated to a cancer sufferer (in this case a survivor), “The Healer,” an older composition directed to those who help us get through periods of adversity, and “Ripples for Margie,” the album’s emotional climax.
“Ripple: Persistence” has Baerman on piano playing with Kris Allen on alto. “Ripple: Brotherhood” has Baerman on organ, Jimmy Greene on soprano, and Johnathan Blake on drums. “Ripple: L’Amour Gagne” is a vocal which features the choir with soloist Claire Randall.
There is music that aims at being beautiful. There is music that aims to make the world a better place. The music on Noah Baerman’s Ripples aims at both. What more can you ask?