Tuesday, July 27, 2010

First Post: Joel Frahm Review

Hello All,

Although my profile says I will be posting from Montreal, I am still in New Jersey. But rest assured, I will be going back to Montreal in two days. This first post is a review I wrote of the Joel Frahm Trio. The saxophonist Joel Frahm performs every Tuesday night (for two sets) at The Bar Next Door in the West Village. I saw him play just last week. It was great fun. Go if you can. 12 dollar cover and one drink minimum. (Not bad for a New York affair.) I hope you enjoy the review:

Downstairs at The Bar Next Door

The Bar Next Door, an elegant, dimly lit walk-down in the West Village, probably seats about thirty people. On Tuesday night, during saxophonist Joel Frahm’s weekly gig there, about ten showed. It didn’t seem to bother him.

Two excited women sat at the bar tapping their feet and smiling as Mr. Frahm coolly soloed his way through “My Shining Hour,” his shoulders hunched tightly in, like Charlie Parker's—a stamp of focus.

In the back of the room, a young couple munched on crisp salad and sipped from iced cocktails—a respite from the heat outside—as Mr. Frahm quoted the first few bars of “Stardust” in a ballad solo. The women at the bar knowingly chuckled. His eyes stayed closed as he moved on to the next idea.

In fact, his eyes were often closed, which lent itself to his seeming unflappability. It’s not that his focus on structure and balance would divert his attention from the paucity of people in the room. Perhaps he just cares more about structure and balance.

Mr. Frahm’s warm, loping sound fit smoothly with the piano-less context known as strolling where there is no chordal accompaniment aside from the arpeggiated, walking bass line. In a way, there’s more harmonic freedom for the soloist. But Mr. Frahm kept his solos refreshingly tame over the gliding accompaniment of the rhythm section—which included drummer Bill Campbell and bassist Joe Martin. Perhaps the best example of the strolling style is Sonny Rollin’s 1957 album, “Way Out West,” in which he reveals his indefatigable sense of balance and swing.

There didn’t seem to be much Rollins in Mr. Frahm’s sound, barring some kazoo-y burps here and there. Although Mr. Frahm has certainly learned from and absorbed Rollins’s sense of soloistic equilibrium. You might have heard some Johnny Griffin in a tortuous, extended solo on Charlie Parker’s “Cheryl.” Some lush passages in “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” might have evoked the breathy soulfulness of Houston Person. A dry Coltrane squeak found its way in occasionally.

The band relied a little too heavily on the vices of jazz-jam egalitarianism: meaning the drummer and bassist took a few too many solos, which made the interplay more predictable. In a ballad or medium swing—the tempos of which well suited this group—Mr. Campbell’s easy brushwork provided an emulsifying texture for Mr. Frahm’s sound.

A sheen of sweat appeared on Mr. Frahm’s nape as he continued through the first set. By the last song, one of the women from the bar had made her way beside the stage, a trumpet in her hand. “Please welcome Carol Morgan,” said Mr. Frahm. She took a timid solo on “I Love You,” a bit overpowered by the bass and drums. Mr. Frahm pointed out the other woman, alto saxophonist Sharel Cassity. “If you don’t know her, you should,” he said.

When the band concluded, the sun had set, and the candles on each table slightly illuminated the red mahogany walls. Village walkers outside took in the sights and sounds of MacDougal Street, their shadows cast by streetlights into the bar. Perhaps the second set would fill up more.

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