Adults over 35 don’t get discussed in the corporate chambers of record companies. They’re not the targets of MTV or pop radio or concert arenas. Alanis Morissette’s songs do not reflect their lives, nor do those of Mariah Carey, Pearl Jam or Hootie and the Blowfish. Even country music, which once concentrated on tales of divorce, faith, work and guilt, now focuses on lightweight dance tunes and moony songs about young love.
This new focus is understandable: Younger people buy more music. They’re more likely to buy a cassette for cruising with friends or a CD for weekend get-togethers. But the business theory of niche marketing includes creating products that serve all potential buying segmentsthat’s why the cereal aisle features as many boxes of unsweetened grains as it does sugary confections.
Recent albums by John Hiatt, Asleep at the Wheel, Al Green and Abbey Lincoln all target an older demographic. But for the most part, the audience that would be interested in these artists doesn’t know their albums even exist. The marketing departments of leading record labels instead seem satisfied with creating six-figure campaigns to launch artistically shallow acts like Silverchair and Clay Walker. Meanwhile, those who’ve spent their lives honing remarkable talents largely go unheard, except by those with enough time or interest to seek out alternatives to the mainstream.
All of this must be discouraging to mature musicians who aim to create something of depth and distinction. Nonetheless, there are plenty of performers who remain dedicated to making music without altering their visions to court wider favorand some of them live right here in Nashville.
New albums by three locally based musicians provide significant proof of Nashville’s growing diversity. Alison Brown, Jeff Coffin and April Barrows all draw on jazz music, yet each moves in a distinctly different direction. They do, however, share a desire to communicate with sophisticated listeners and a desire to create music with depth. As they continue to live and work in Nashville, they will no doubt add to the city’s reputation as a place that nurtures mature talents.
Alison Brown, the best known of the three, has just released her fourth and finest album. Quartet shows off the sharp ensemble interplay of Brown’s four-piece band and her unusually inventive style of banjo playing. A Harvard graduate and one-time investment banker, Brown is now at the forefront of a movement of musicians who are exploring modern jazz on instruments usually identified with folk and country music. Her background includes stints as a member of Alison Krauss’ Union Station and as a bandleader for folk-rocker Michelle Shocked. On her own, she pursues a more progressive sound, filling the gentle, rolling beauty of her compositions with a banjo style that has more in common with pianist McCoy Tyner than with banjo stalwart Earl Scruggs.
Brown’s first recording with her bandpianist John R. Burr, bassist (and producer) Garry West, drummer Rick Reedis a delightful excursion. She delves more wholeheartedly into jazz-style group playing, and her banjo contributions are incredibly well constructed. Her interplay with Burr, who plays with percussive energy, is especially impressive. She also continues to draw on music from various regions of the world without leaning on obvious musical references. Whether writing about Mexico, Paris, Russia or the Irish Sea, she creates strong, original images that evoke the spirit and traditional music of each place. She’s often playfully light (“The Red Balloon,” “Mindful Rupert”), but she can also create striking mood pieces (“Without Anastasia,” “The Day Sweeps Back”). She fleshes out her endlessly fresh ideas in a sumptuous style that is as entertaining as it is unflashy.
Jeff Coffin works in a more traditional jazz style. His emergence as a major player within local clubs suggests that Nashville is primed to start showcasing local jazz musicians: Not since the days when Jeff Kirk regularly led bands at J.C.’s has Nashville been privy to bop played with this level of competence. Coffin’s Outside the Lines probably won’t put him in cahoots with Joe Lovano, Joe Henderson, David Murray and Branford Marsalisat this point, his playing and composing are too derivative to compete with the leading players in Manhattan. Still, for a town where jazz fans go underfed, Coffin’s highly developed style and the informed interplay of his bandmates provide cause for celebration.
Some of the best parts of this debut album come when Coffin and trumpeter Bill Fanning interlock. The rhythm section of drummer Chris Brown and bassists Lou Harless (on two cuts) and Roger Spencer (on the other four) sets an appropriately swinging backdrop for the horn players (including trombonist Barry Green) and pianist Tom Reynolds; there are times, however, when the two-track recording seems to cheat Brown and Reynolds. The most interesting contributions come from guitarist Mel Deal, whose presence on “Waiting Upon Your Arrival” is especially effective. He helps make this Miles-influenced tune the most interesting of the collection. Watch for these guys live; it’ll be interesting to see how they develop with time.
April Barrows has already spent several years in town developing her timeless brand of jazz-pop, which draws on the smooth, supple vocalizing of such ’40s and ’50s singing stars as Ella Fitzgerald. Barrows has a reedy voice with a high pitchshe’s more of a stylist in the mold of Peggy Lee or Dakota Staton than a pure-toned singer like Helen Forrest or Jo Stafford. On My Dream Is You, she wields her talent with adroit playfulness; she’s an expressive singer, with just enough subtle theatricality to give her carefully constructed tunes a lively bounce.
The album’s covers include Duke Ellington’s cowrite with Harry James on the lithe “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” a tune that fits in perfectly with the burnished glow of Barrows’ own charming songs. Her lyrics mirror the lighthearted wordplay of Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer and Ira Gershwin. On “An Old Stuffed Sofa,” for example, she illustrates her desire for a reliable, comfortable man. “If he’s just a bit threadbarish, that’s the part of him I’ll cherish,” she sings with perfect coyness.
Musically, Barrows’ tunes come alive through a superb band of tasteful, swinging Music City veterans. Reed player Dennis Solee and trumpeter George Tidwell have never sounded more wonderfully sublime. David Hungate, the ex-member of Toto who also coproduced the album with Barrows, has a ball on trombone and also occasionally keeps rhythm on acoustic guitar. Roy Huskey Jr.’s stout acoustic bass lines stand out as usual, while Andre Reiss sounds like Django Reinhardt on an impeccably restrained outing. Again, drummer Chris Brown’s light touch provides rhythm with just the right flair.
All three jazz-influenced releases speak volumes about Nashville’s direction as it continues to embrace musical adventurers of all stripes. Quartet will receive national attention for Alison Brown’s progressive yet accessible style; the other two albums provide, at the very least, welcome souvenirs for clubgoers interested in a musical night out that doesn’t involve earplugs or splashing through beer puddles. With any luck, a few years from now, this kind of fare won’t be considered so novel in Nashville.
Best of luck Chris. I'm rooting for you.
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