A couple of months ago I got an e-mail from a friend who asked if I still reviewed jazz records. I kind of got mentally stuck at the "still;" soon I bemusedly responded that, no, not as such, I didn't, but I occasionally wrote about music on my blog, so, you know...
A couple of exchanges later it was determined that I should recieve the new album by the artist, Randy Ingram, a jazz pianist who leads a quartet on this outing. It arrived in the mail addressed to "Glenn Kenny, Arbiter of Taste," which made me laugh but is also the kind of joke that I'm apt to overthink, so in about 20 minutes I wasn't sure whether I ought to have been slightly insulted or not. The next thing that struck me was that I wasn't familiar with any of the names of the other musicians in the quartet (and I hadn't been with Ingram's, either): Mike Moreno on guitar, Matt Clohesy on bass, and Jochen Rueckert on bass. I like to think that I'm fairly to pretty up-to-date on the younger players in the contemporary jazz world, or maybe it's just that I know a lot of the alumni of Anthony Braxton's band or the U.S.-based roster of the Portuguese label Clean Feed or whoever's regularly covered in The Wire or featured at ISSUE Project Room. These players would include Mary Halvorson, Peter Evans, Taylor Bo Hunum, Kris Davis, Ingrid Laubock, Drew Gresse, Chris Smith, Ralph Alessi, all the guys in Mostly Other People Do The Killing, and so on. Rather oddly, when I looked at the websites for the players on Ingram's record, I didn't see any kind of overlap between their gigging and recording worlds and those inhabited by any of the above listed players. None. Which could mean one, or both, of two things: I'm not as well-informed as I think I am, and/or that factions in contemporary jazz are a bit more segregated than you'd think. Not segregated in terms of gender or race but, I don't know, temperament? Philosophy?
Now might be a good time to get to the record itself. It is really exceptional. Ingram writes real compositions: not songs, not heads or themes that provide pretext for "blowing," but long melody lines, sometimes articulated by the leader and guitarist Moreno in tandem. The title track, which is the record's opener, feels a bit like a relay race for tones taken at half-speed; after a sprightly, tinkling opening from Ingram, a single long line is taken at a graceful but not sleepy pace by Ingram and Moreno, after which they chat amiably in fours before taking off on solo flights, Ingram first, Moreno second. Ingram is a canny but not a tricksy pianist; if he's soloing, he won't necessarilly do anything counterintuitive or stealthily-genius with his left hand while his right hand is making the statement; no, he'll throw in the accents and the intimations of a bass line, or maybe nudge his solo in the ribs with a dissonant elbow, or raise an eyebrow of counterpoint, but he's not into misdirection or prestidigitation as such. Similarly, his band, while not what you'd call "reined in," is solidly supportive but doesn't push him as such; rather, they keep the ground tidy, but not bland, for the compositions. The keywords here are coherence and clarity. Both the lead players favor a crisp, open tone. Moreno's hollow-body guitar work seems virtually effects-free, and when he goes for sustained notes you really hear his finger on the fret. Ingram gives every note he pulls from the piano a considered amount of weight; he's never overbearing or overload, nor does he ever let his tones approach a mode you could call impressionistic, let alone mushy. It is not for nothing that the maestro of modulation Fred Hersch is an admirer of Ingram's.
But Ingram has a way of surprising you when you think you've got him figured out. The nice thing is that the surprises don't jar—Sky/Lift is a very well-integrated listening experience—but do make you prick up your ears, which are then rewarded. The album's fourth track, "Time Remembered" seems clearly a title with a double or even triple meaning, as Ingram's playing here is practically explosive, replete with spiky note clusters and dizzying runs that stop well short of maximum dissonance while still making the hairs on the back of the neck stick up, not least because of the way his interpolations push up against the tune's meter and tempo, a shifty bottom that threatens to turn into quicksand at times. After the careening theme of "St. Louis," it's back to more comfortable ground; both "The Sea" and "Late Romantic" are tunes that completely live up to their titles. The album's next curveball, and final tune, isn't really a curveball at all, because why shouldn't a contemporary jazz musician have grown up hearing and loving rock and roll? "Nicky"is a homage to the classic rock session pianist Nicky Hopkins, whose lush rhythmic chording enhanced and/or defined recordings such as The Stones' Beggar's Banquet and Quicksilver's Shady Grove, and who played in one of Jerry Garcia's solo bands (which largely aspired to place jazz improvising techniques in a rock and soul context). Fans of Hopkins' work will likely break out grinning at the rolling intro and theme of the piece, which is quintessential Nicky. The playing on the rest of the tune is the most relaxed on the album; it's a very enjoyable way to go out.