Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2005 07:04 am
A triumph of soul over style
A jazz tribute to Pavement sounds like a bad idea. ItÂ’s not.
A jazz tribute to Pavement sounds like a bad idea — at best a willfully silly experiment conceived by a gaggle of giggling stoners, at worst a transparent attempt to make aging hipsters feel more sophisticated, the Generation X equivalent of the Moody Blues’ gigging with a symphony orchestra. With a few exceptions, these high-art/low-art collusions aren’t good for much besides squeezing money out of squares during PBS fund drives. Although music fans are wise to greet such middlebrow monstrosities with suspicion, it would be a shame to dismiss Gold Sounds on the basis of its gimmick. Neither a gussied-up rock album nor a dumbed-down jazz album, Gold Sounds succeeds on its own terms, a triumph of soul over style. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that this ad hoc quartet comprises saxophonist James Carter, pianist Cyrus Chestnut, drummer Ali Jackson, and bassist Reginald Veal. Carter, who portrayed Ben Webster in Robert Altman’s film Kansas City, is widely acknowledged as a sax visionary, a mercurial shaman whose catalog ranges from idiosyncratic takes on Django Reinhardt and Billie Holiday compositions to ridiculously funky collaborations with Motown session men. Recently decreed a legend by New York magazine, Chestnut played gospel before establishing his cred as a brilliant jazz sideman; his solo career spans more than a decade and fuses frantic bebop with incantatory soul. Veal, a versatile player best known for his work with bop purist Wynton Marsalis, has also toured with iconoclast par excellence Cassandra Wilson. The junior member of the ensemble, twentysomething Jackson, has done time as a bandleader, earning critical acclaim for his 1997 album Live at Jazz en Tête. So great is the collective talent of this quartet that even my friend Steve, a self-proclaimed “supreme Pavement hata,” loves Gold Sounds. “I had no idea they were playing Pavement songs,” he confessed. “This is a really great jazz record.” Indeed, Steve and his brethren have excellent reasons to blame the group for its imitators, those slovenly swarms of ironic college bands that plagued the lo-fi ’90s, but Gold Sounds proves that Pavement’s influence isn’t always pernicious. If Stephen Malkmus and company weren’t the most technically proficient musicians on the planet, they made up for it with their shambolic grace, their ability to contain fracas and fragility in deceptively melodic forms, their combustible potions of off-kilter riffs and inscrutable pronouncements. Taking its title from a track on 1994’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (a song that, oddly enough, doesn’t appear on this CD), Gold Sounds includes at least one cut from each of Pavement’s five albums, with the exception of 1995’s Wowee Zowee. Slanted and Enchanted gets top billing, with three stellar transfigurations: The slacker anthem “Summer Babe” becomes a groovy shuffle built on lustrous Fender Rhodes, high and twanging electric bass, and sassy tenor sax; the bruised lullaby “Here” recasts Malkmus’ offhand vocal melody as a soaring soprano sax line while twinkling piano figures reveal heretofore unimaginable harmonies; and the fractured post-punk workout “Trigger Cut,” arranged here for solo piano, serves as fertile ground for Chestnut’s playful, cerebral, and magisterial improvisation. Pavement’s biggest (well, only) hit single, “Cut Your Hair,” is rendered as a languid blues, and “Blue Hawaiian,” from 1997’s Brighten the Corners, becomes a slinky late-night reverie. A cynic might say that Carter and his cohorts are slumming, converting pig’s ears into silk purses and unschooled indie rockers into bona fide jazzbos just to prove that they can. But as virtuosic as these musicians are, their real achievement lies in the passion, sympathy, and joy that they bring to Pavement’s music. You can’t fake those with a fakebook.