Crepuscular Magic from Jessica Jones and Mark Taylor
Last year, tenor saxophonist Jessica Jones and french horn player Mark Taylor recorded their June 25 concert at the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse in Berkeley with bassist John Shifflett and drummer Jason Lewis. More artists, particularly jazz artists, should be doing this: capturing this show for posterity (via New Artists Records) was a tremendously smart move. What they got out of it was an absolutely fascinating album of nocturnes. It’s not clear if the sequence of tracks matches the order of the set list, but either way it plays like a suite. The quartet maintains the sense of purpose and pensive nonchalance of one of Miles Davis’ late 50s bands, setting a mood that never lets up. The cohesiveness of the band is all the more remarkable considering how much space each of the musicians leaves between motifs, or even notes: at one point toward the end of the fifth track, Lewis fires off a cluster of snazzy volleys, capping each one with a jubilant cymbal crash, one of the few places where anyone plays more than a handful of notes without letting them linger.
They set the tone immediately with the strangely titled Furious George, a warily bluesy Taylor composition which is not furious but matter-of-factly swinging, sometimes allusively so. Throughout the album, Lewis colors the music with an often ominously booming, contemplative attack on the toms rather propelling it: usually it’s Shifflett who holds the center with a biting, growling tone. Other times, such as this track, it’s either Jones or Taylor. Both players approach the material tersely, Taylor with a casual legato that is often indistinguishable from a trombone. Waiting for the Vampire’s Redemption, by Jones goes deep into the shadows with understatedly moody, chromatically-charged twin horn harmonies, grows atmospheric to the point where it becomes a tone poem of sorts, Jones and Taylor picking it up over Shifflett’s hypnotic groove.
Taylor has a series of compositions illustrating the adventures of Zamindar, a rather satirical superhero he’s invented, and the band tackles a couple of them here. By the Park at Midnight (Zamindar’s Promenade) keeps the suspense and the noir vibe going, an often desolate, sparse performance with contrasting dark/light solos from the horn and then the sax, Shifflett’s menacing stalker motif pulling everything together before it winds out, unresolved. The other track, The Zamindar Gambit is basically a one-chord jam, a sort of Mission Impossible Theme spoof full of unexpected dynamic shifts and finally another climactic bass progression around which the band coalesces.
Jones’ Waynopolis, a rather haunting, modal number that seems to pick up where Wayne Shorter’s Footprints left off, slinks and sways slowly through a series of wary variations on an almost cruelly direct opening theme, Lewis’ purposeful rumbles, Shifflett’s steady nocturnal pulse and a ghostly bass-and-drums interlude toward the end. By contrast, Manhattan, another Jones track, bustles with a jaunty swing driven not by the rhythm section but by the horns, Lewis cleverly shadowing Jones but never taking centerstage. From there they segue into the set’s most improvisational interlude, Taylor dipping to the lowest point of his register. Jones’ What Purpose Is Your Pain follows and makes an apt segue, Jones reaching as high as she ever goes here with some unexpectedly resounding microtonal trills, Shifflett again pulling the crew around him as the bass rises steadily and stealthfully. They close with Taylor’s Breath.Eyes, a midtempo ballad in disguise, Taylor alluding liberally to Coltrane, Jones taking her time bringing back the darkly contemplative atmosphere.
There are a couple of passages here where the band leaves the songs out out to dry: if you’re not listening on headphones and the music is competing with something as relatively quiet as an air conditioner, you might be left with the impression that the album has ended. Those parts could have been cut without diminishing its dark appeal. And because this is a live recording, there are occasional issues with volume and miking that probably wouldn’t have occurred in a controlled studio setting. But that’s a small price to pay (and one that the mp3 generation won’t notice, anyway) for all this sepulchral magic.
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