Listeners who remember Joel Frahm’s saxophone playing from two decades ago are in for a surprise. He is about to embark on a tour of Europe as leader of a trio. In England he will be at PizzaExpress (Soho) on 27 April and at Seven Arts Leeds on 28 April. Preview/interview by Charles Rees:
Fans who remember American saxophonist Joel Frahm for the kind of roles he had twenty years ago are in for a surprise. He worked with Jane Monheit for several years and is on her “Rainbow Room DVD” (recorded 2001). In the same year a remarkable duet album with Brad Mehldau, Don’t Explain, was released. The pianist and the saxophonist knew each other from their teenage years onwards, and Mehldau writes elegantly about that experience HERE.
As Mehldau writes: “When I think of Joel, I think of his sound on the tenor, big and generous, very warm and comfortable, […] just getting to the heart of the song, with all its sadness and resignation, immediately, from the first note.”
In other words, Frahm’s status as a hugely inventive improviser and as a masterful technician of his instrument has never been in doubt, and yet, despite his imposing height, it is as if he seems to prefer to play in the shadows.
In our interview, we talked about that and how it has affected him: “I was never really much of a leader – not beyond the local gigs I was doing in New York. Becoming a leader in the sense of touring and writing my own compositions, and learning to do this on a larger scope, that’s come a little later and it was never initially my strength.”
These memories are things of the past, but the contrast they represent with Frahm as he is today, in his most recent album, The Bright Side, is striking. Now in his early 50s, Frahm is a confident, assertive and dominant bandleader in the mould of a Chris Potter, with a compelling set of music that he mostly composed himself.
When asked what brought about this change, he explained; “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten to the point, I would say in the last five years or so, where I don’t care as much what other people think of my playing anymore.” He went on to describe how this has relaxed him when performing; that he no longer feels the need to ‘prove’ himself every time out…
In The Bright Side, Frahm has followed in the line of other great sax-led trio records: Sonny Rollins, Way Out West; Joe Henderson, State of the Tenor; Steve Grossman, Way Out East (he opted for a trio with just bass and drums).
The former is provided by Dan Loomis, the latter by Canadian-born Ernesto Cervini, and both supply a few of their own compositions to the set. This configuration absolutely needs strong musicians, with additional responsibilities falling on all of them in the absence of a chordal instrument. These three musicians are certainly equal to the challenge.
Tunes like Frahm’s “Blow Papa Joe” and Dan Loomis’ “X Friends” exemplify what makes this album such a breath of fresh air: The former is a based on the chords of Joe Henderson’s “Inner Urge” and the latter is a take on the standard “Just Friends”. They include such contrafacts in the set, just as Charlie Parker often did and Jerry Bergonzi continues to do, but which seem to be a rarity in modern British jazz. Frahm explained his reasoning for their inclusion; “For me it’s a writing aid, because if you start with a set of chord changes you’re giving yourself a canvas to create on that has some direction to it already. It’s almost like writing bebop…but slowly [laughs].”
In this repertoire Frahm demonstrates an obvious reverence for jazz’s lineage and his specific influences, which notably include Johnny Griffin, Joe Henderson and Chris Potter. The album has a raw, live element to it; it was recorded ‘as live’ on one day, with no multi-tracking or effects. It is the kind of pure, unashamed jazz one would expect to hear in a club such as one of Frahm’s regular haunts, Small’s in New York.
Frahm says this: I think people should come out because this is something that holds elements of the tradition: it’s really gonna swing, there’s gonna be a lot of blues… It’s really a fun band, very interactive, very spirited, there’s never sense of anyone mailing it in on these gigs. In every gig we do, everyone brings everything to it every time, so, if people come and see us play, they’re definitely gonna go home with something they remember.”
The message is clear: go and hear this exciting trio in concert at the end of the month.
LINKS: Joel Frahm’s website
BOOKINGS: PizzaExpress (booking link)
Seven Arts Leeds (booking link).