Album Review

Jim Snidero – ‘Live at the Deer Head Inn’

Jim Snidero – Live at the Deer Head Inn
(Savant SCD 2193. Album review by Sebastian Scotney)

This album documents that rarest of events from the past few months: a live jazz gig recorded in October 2020 in front of a live audience who – truly and audibly – appreciate what the players can do. The quality is truly excellent – however, this listener did find the mind prone to wander, drawn by an irresistible temptation to start thinking about what the album represents, the circumstances in which it was made, the story it tells, rather than listening to the album itself.

The economy/ecology of putting on music in small venues has always been fragile, but an album like this, and the level of craft and inventiveness to be witnessed, sets one pondering about the things which we have always assumed we could take for granted. Given that it increasingly seems that small-venue gigs might be among the last economic sectors to be “unlocked”, this album makes me want to reflect on what it will take to ensure that the people who have the community-minded instinct and the imperative to make these things happen can continue to do so. That train of thought does inevitably lead to far more questions than answers…

And there’s another reminder of how ephemeral the scene is:  the Deer Head Inn in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania is proud to declare itself as the country’s “oldest continuously running jazz club”. In other words, no club in the whole of the US has attained the longevity of this one. This was the venue where, more than half a century ago, a teenager from nearby Allentown called Keith Jarrett received the benefit of encouragement to try sitting in with the house band. And so he did, not just on piano, but also – so I read – on drums…

The instigator of the gig recorded here is Jim Snidero, an alto saxophonist originally from the Bay Area of California, now also a respected educator with a teaching post at the New School in New York. He had booked a trio of the very best to play with him on this, his first gig in more than half a year. To be reminded just how good all four of them are is perhaps the greatest pleasure of hearing this session.

Above all, for me at least, that was the case for that very special bassist Peter Washington. He was a Jazz Messenger back in the mid- to late- 1980s and since then has been a sideman on literally hundreds of albums. Bassist in the trios of Tommy Flanagan and then Bill Charlap, Washington is just astonishingly, consistently, jaw-droppingly good. His solo lines always have a direction, an interest, a story, a particular personality. There is a special moment on Autumn Leaves when he is left completely on his own to solo. I had somehow hoped to be able to write at this point that the sheer authority of his playing had not just compelled the band but also the Deer Head Inn audience to be silent, to listen to him in awe, not to miss a note… but facts have a way of getting in the way of a good story: this and one other track (unspecified in the liner notes and press materials) were not actually a part of the set that night, but were recorded later in the same space, and not at the live gig. That said, it is the playing that counts, and Washington is just stupendous.

Drummer Joe Farnsworth, who once upon a time learnt from Alan Dawson – who also taught Tony Williams, Terri Lyne Carrington… – is, as ever, both empathetic and in the pocket. Farnsworth is unshowy but unbelievable. Harold Mabern once told me in an interview “Joe Farnsworth is probably the best drummer playing jazz” – and on the evidence of this, I would certainly not demur.

More distractions…The fact that this release happens to coincide with an announcement from Orrin Evans that he is leaving The Bad Plus after three years to concentrate on other projects is another sideways thought which takes the mind away from the act of listening. Evans is on fine form here, and the sheer presence and (there might not be a better word) perfection of the Washington/Farnsworth tandem allows the pianist to relish plenty of “out” playing in a joyous, unpredictable way that always sounds fresh and interesting rather than contrived. He is also a wonderfully discreet accompanist – notably in My Old Flame.

And Jim Snidero himself is well summed-up in a recent Guardian album review by Dave Gelly. Musicians evolve – sometimes we can forget that obvious fact – and it is indeed his ballad playing, notably on Ol’ Man River, which does draw the listener in best. There is also a neat touch that he decided to start the set with Parker’s Now’s The Time. Parker’s daughter Kim was in the audience, and her voice is audible shouting “Yeah” at the end of one of the tracks.

It is a very good thing that Live at the Deer Head Inn exists. It feels like a token of hope, a prayer for the return of live gigs, of interaction, and of rebuilding communities drawn together by a passion for great live music. As the Deer Head Inn’s most famous alumnus once remarked (and with rather greater assuredness than the teenager who once played there): “Jazz is there and gone. It happens. You have to be present for it. That simple.”

LINK: Live at Deer Head Inn is on Soundcloud

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