Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Review: Joel Holmes/'African Skies'...

Pigeon holes have become more confusing these last years, especially with regard to the music(s) we call 'jazz.' Born on the cusp of the electronic age and accelerated by the developing technologies, its development has been rapid compared to the longer, more sedate span of western art/classical music. Measure from plainsong to Schoenberg and beyond, for example and compare the years travelled against work song/ragtime/marching band/blues to... 'modern post bop,' which is how Blue Canoe, the digital jazz label based in Georgia, defines this new release by the young pianist Joel Holmes. A separate journey of course – jazz as a majestic African-American achievement (in the main, but not exclusively) went down many different roads compared to its Western art music relation, while recapitulating and folding much of that music's advances into itself – wheels within wheels indeed. So: there is a lot to unpack in the tight compression of a hundred years of jazz history leading up to the term 'post-bop.' Leaving aside 'free jazz' – Holmes is broadly in the mainstream lineage – what lies under the large panorama of his album 'African Skies?' Joel Holmes shows his influences – as a young musician should – but also demonstrates how far he has travelled from them (while retaining his links with those earlier styles) and some of the areas he wants to explore further. Which indicates, perhaps, the breadth of possibilities that the mainstream of jazz still has to explore. Here you will find adaptions of Chinese folk song, homages to Coltrane and Herbie Hancock, original compositions and a nod to the American standard songbook, played by: solo piano, straight ahead piano trios, burning quartets with Gary Thomas's tenor saxophone added, further extensions with added strings and flute, spiced with African/Latin percussion. All these different angles held together by the leader's keyboard skills and highly developed sense of structure – and strong spirituality – the whole kicked along by the booting drums of Eric Kennedy, rhythm being at the heart of the mainstream/modern postbop whatever, the solid link with the tradition. It all swings...

A brief overview:

'African Skies' starts on a slow rumble to suddenly bounce into a lithe line, fast piano echoed by tenor and punctuated by the added percussion whose rolling rhythms evoke both African and Latin styles. Solo honours from tenor and strong but melodic piano.

'Impressions,' and 'Impressions – Take Two.' Two fast runs through the Coltrane number. Holmes shows his two-handed skills and fleet sense of melody, shadowed by nimble bass and the powering drums. Gary Thomas proves himself deserving of wider recognition...

'Chinese Fishing Song' signals a change of gear and direction – heading East, rhapsodic piano evoking the rippling of waves and then slow stately violin takes the folk song theme. Moving into a steady tempo as the violin (Chia Yin Holmes) slowly builds an elegant yet intense solo, increasingly prodded by drum interjections, followed by muscular, jaunty piano.

Another Coltrane tune, 'Mr P.C.' Straight up quartet again. Tenor solos first then piano comes running fast out of the blocks. Then: a trading section across the band - swapping choruses rather than fours or eights, in a round robin, which demonstrates again the intelligent arranging/structuring, to get as much out of the various smallband lineups as possible.

'Fatima' - another sonic area opens here – piano trio with added percussion, strings and flute. The strings are used sparingly, the airy pastorality of the flute balanced by strong bass ostinatos and – again – the powerful drums that are never far away.

'Summer night.' A piano trio: surefooted spin through a light waltz. A standard, from Harry Warren and Al Dubin, taken skilfully round the floor. Perhaps a nod at another Holmes's hero – the late Oscar Peterson.

Another pick from the jazz songbook – the patter of bongoes gives a Latin feel to Herbie Hancock's 'Maiden Voyage.' Contrasts aplenty – reflective passages giving way to storming drums. Another well-structured track with much dynamic variety.

'Soliloquy of trouble.' Solo piano – evoking one of his favourite pianist influences, Art Tatum with sudden swirling jaunts away from the slow tempo. Exposed, Holmes passes the test...

'Moment's Notice.' Back to the trio... chorded theme with fast-skittering drums – then quick fire, sparkling lines from the leader. Eric Kennedy really boots this along, taking the track, and fittingly, the session, out with a thumping solo.

An impressive album... Holmes is not afraid of showing his strong links back, not just to the immediate past – Coltrane, Herbie Hancock etc but further, Oscar Peterson, back to the great Art Tatum (and beyond – interestingly he says that ragtime was his first influence), but avoiding pastiche or retro/tribute band lockdown in his incorporation of wider musical streams – 'folk/world music,' etc. Again, these terms have often implied a watering down blandout – avoided here by the tough, supple drumming of Eric Kennedy which provides a flexible platform throughout – and the leader's overall maturity of vision. The relatively short tracks offer concise episodes where Holmes sense of structure and dynamics is displayed effectively– the individual pieces refracting each other to offer a kaleidoscopic panorama of the possibilities still open 'within the tradition.'

Final thoughts: Holmes is well-supported on the album: Gary Thomas and the other musicians bend their individual skills to the wider endeavour – the tenor saxophonist, especially, I would like to hear more of...

Collective Personnel:

Joel Holmes - piano
Gary Thomas, Tim Green - sax/flute
Eric Kennedy - drums
Jeff Reed, Eric Wheeler - bass
Melena - percussion
Themba Mikhatshwa - conga, djembe
Chun-Wen Chuan - cello
Chia Yin Holmes - violin