The relative anonymity of “James Farm” conceals some well-known jazz names. Featuring saxophonist Joshua Redman, pianist Aaron Parks, bassist Matt Penman, and drummer Eric Harland, the quartet shrugs off the “all-star” label and everything that it connotes.
On City Folk, James Farm’s sophomore outing, each member contributes at least one composition, and each song fits a larger narrative. Melodies are catchy and often deceptively simple, driven by head-bobbing grooves and intricate rhythms. The album seems stripped down for accessibility, pulsing with the energy of rock and hip-hop, but realized through the subtle extras that set these four players apart from many of their peers. In this way, they’ve built on the strong foundation of their self-titled 2011 debut album.
The interplay on City Folk is even more refined. Midway through “Mr. E,” for instance, Redman hands off a solo to Parks, who develops it and passes it back, without breaking a sweat, for the saxophonist to dissect anew. They’re relatively brief solos, but they sound like one player switching instruments to find the fullest voice for an idea. And, on the same song, the band is so tight that it’s almost easy to overlook the fact that Harland is driving the action. The drummer propels through feels and time signatures with the spare dynamism that makes him such a standout performer.
This convergence — four individuals coming together into one close sound —marks James Farm as something special. When Parks or Penman match Redman’s jabbing sax lines note for note, it sounds like a single instrument. Production flourishes further enhance the music, for example, when Parks’ wordless vocals join Redman’s soprano to close “Unknown” like a lullaby. —Warren Allen