City of Sounds
Drummer and composer Joe Farnsworth has done a great job of branding himself with ‘swing.’ His 2020 album and accompanying emblazoned merchandise are entitled “Time to Swing.” So, it’s that time again as Farnsworth reenlists pianist, NEA Jazz Master Kenny Barron, and renowned bassist Peter Washington for another session, this time as a trio for City of Sounds. That city is New York City where Farnsworth has resided for more than three decades. The recording was captured onstage in front of no audience at Smoke Jazz & Supper Club in February of 2021, Farnsworth’s birthday week. Farnsworth plays with the simplest of drum kits if you’ve seen him live or in videos performing with the likes of George Coleman, Wynton Marsalis, ELEW, David Hazeltine and legends such as McCoy Tyner, Cedar Walton, Harold Mabern, and Hank Jones. Farnsworth is admired by many a pianist. George Cables provides his incisive liner notes for this release.
The inspiration for the album and its title comes from this wonderful Farnsworth quote – “I went on a Black Lives Matter march from Inwood through Harlem that ended up at a park on the West Side Highway. As we marched, people were flying flags of the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico, and you’d hear salsa music playing from their windows. Then you went through Harlem and heard funk and soul and rap music. Everyone was cheering for the same thing, but there were all these different sounds. You can’t get that anywhere else in the world.”
The set kicks off with Barron’s “New York Attitude,” which originally appeared on his 1996 album of the same name. the trio is swinging from the get-go before going the elegant brushes and graceful piano route with “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” which also feature Washington’s deft acoustic bass plucking. That leads to one of three Farnsworth originals, the rather unexpected “Ojos Carinsosos,” conjuring the Latin sounds he experienced on his walk and dedicated to a Dominican friend. It was also inspired by his collaborations with percussionist/bandleader Bobby Sanabria and a few lessons from Miguel “Mike” Amadeo, the Puerto-Rican-born songwriter and proprietor of Casa Amadeo, the city’s longest-running Latin music store. Barron follows with “Bud Like,” rather obviously for bebop pianist great Bud Powell, but retaining some of the Latin feel of Farnsworth’s tune.
The rapid bebop tempo slows to a simmering crawl, again demonstrating how tenderly this trio can play a standard for “Moonlight in Vermont.” Its inspiration hearkens to a date that the drummer shared with the iconic vocalist Betty Carter while playing in Benny Golson’s band at the now defunct Greenwich Village club Sweet Basil. The trio renders blues in the after-hours jam session feel of Farnsworth’s “City of Sounds” while his third composition, “No Fills,” takes off at a gallop. It has an interesting anecdote associated with it as Farnsworth recounts playing with George Coleman. After the set Coleman asked him, “Do you want some butter with them rolls?” indicating he was playing too much. He references drummer Billy Higgins, pointing out that on Hank Mobley’s Straight No Filler they do a tune called “Soft Impressions” where McCoy Tyner is playing explosively but Higgins never plays a fill. For Farnsworth, that is “the bible of no fills.” Instead, he delivers a patented energetic solo. Looking for a pandemic-themed tune to close, they chose the standard “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise,” to represent dawn after the darkness. This oft-covered tune has several interpretations, many of which are dark, but this trio brightens it to signify the arrival of better times. Each delivers animated an solo and as are the lively conversations between them.
Striving for continuity and expressing how much the city means to him, the cover photo was taken in Weehawken, New Jersey at the same spot where saxophonist Benny Golson is depicted on the cover of 1959’s New York Scene. Golson was one of Farnsworth’s earliest employers, and the site is not far from the homes of Thelonious Monk and Barry Harris, which Farnsworth says affected the very atmosphere of the place.
“People ask all the time if it’s still relevant to come to New York anymore,” Farnsworth concludes. “Without a doubt, if you were to spend a year here, you would be a better musician. Why? Charlie Parker’s not here, but you still feel him. Monk’s not here, but you still feel him. Their presence flows through the streets. It flows through the people. It’s the ultimate power source.”
These three generate plenty of power but it’s the versatility and command of rhythms, harmonics, and dynamics that makes the recording so appealing. Just like the diverse sounds in the city, they seamlessly and effortlessly move in several directions.
- Jim Hynes