Joe Farnsworth | “City of Sounds” | Available October 1 via Smoke Sessions Records
Drummer Joe Farnsworth Celebrates the Fortitude of
New York City’s Jazz Community with
Second Release for Smoke Sessions Record
Due Out October 1, City of Sounds Features
Kenny Barron and Peter Washington
Prior to the events of 2020, it may have been easy to take New York City’s thriving and diverse music scene for granted. But when clubs went dark and an unsettling silence descended on the metropolis, it served as a stark reminder of just how vitally important it is to keep the music alive. Drummer Joe Farnsworth determined to do just that, and remained a stalwart jazz warrior throughout the pandemic. His celebratory new album, City of Sounds, is both a testament to his efforts and a heartfelt tribute to the musical melting pot he’s called home for more than three decades.
Due out October 1 via Smoke Sessions Records, City of Sounds was captured onstage at Smoke Jazz & Supper Club with a superb trio featuring legendary pianist Kenny Barron and bass titan Peter Washington. The three are reunited from Farnsworth’s Smoke Sessions debut, Time To Swing, which also included Wynton Marsalis in the line-up. Here Farnsworth sticks to the core trio, a format in which he’s thrived throughout his storied career – including collaborations with McCoy Tyner, Cedar Walton, Harold Mabern, Hank Jones, David Hazeltine and ELEW, among many others.
“I’ve learned so much from this city,” Farnsworth declares. “Then the city got rocked, so I wanted to try to give back. One of the ways I could do that was by staying here and playing whenever and however I could to keep the sounds alive.”
The performance represented by City of Sounds is just one example of that effort. A thrilling live concert from Farnsworth’s birthday week in February 2021, it bears the traces of the strange period we’re just now emerging from, with musicians in masks and separated by plastic barriers, playing to an empty club for an audience of virtual listeners streaming the music live at home.
Not that any of those inconveniences are reflected in the music. The trio plays with as much vigor, wit and muscularity as if the place was packed throughout a rollicking set that spans the stylistic spectrum. That’s one of – if not the main – reasons that Farnsworth remains so dedicated to his adopted hometown, and one that he was proud to see survive the travails of a turbulent period.
“I went on a Black Lives Matter march from Inwood through Harlem that ended up at a park on the West Side Highway,” he recalls. “As we marched, people were flying the 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.”
If that trek can be summed up in a single tune, it’s here in Barron’s “Bud-like,” a tribute to bebop pioneer Bud Powell that also bears a slight Latin tinge. Farnsworth continues the Latin feel with his sultry original “Ojos Cariñosos.” Translated as “brown eyes,” the tune is dedicated to a Dominican friend and was inspired by his collaborations with percussionist/bandleader Bobby Sanabria and lessons learned from Miguel “Mike” Amadeo, the Puerto Rican-born songwriter and proprietor of Casa Amadeo, the city’s longest-running Latin music store.
The set gets off to a brisk and swinging start with Barron’s “New York Attitude.” The song was originally recorded on the pianist’s 1996 album of the same name, but it’s an apt kick-off to an exhilarating evening dedicated to the toughness and tenacity of the jazz mecca’s steadfast musical community.
“We’re at Smoke and there’s no one there, there’re baffles between us, and we have masks on – Kenny Barron, who is royalty and could easily have decided just to stay home and not deal with this, is across the stage with a double mask on. But he’s out there. That’s the fortitude of the New York musician. You have to have it to be here because you get smacked around by so many different things, but you just keep showing up.”
The flip side of that attitude is the tenderness and grace that Barron brings to a classic standard like “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” buoyed by Washington’s fleet basslines and the airy touch of Farnsworth’s nimble brushwork. “Moonlight in Vermont” is taken at an achingly slow pace, inspired by an encounter that Farnsworth shared with vocalist Betty Carter while playing at the now-defunct Greenwich Village club Sweet Basil in Benny Golson’s band. Album closer “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise,” meanwhile, takes on an uncharacteristic brightness that represents the dawn after the darkness.
“Kenny suggested that tune,” Farnsworth says. “Everybody was so worried about the future at that point. We were constantly talking about taking things day by day. That’s all you heard during the pandemic, but it’s something you should hear every day. So ‘Softly’ is a reminder that today is a new day.”
Farnsworth’s “City of Sounds” is a woozy blues that hints at an after-hours jam session, while the blistering “No Fills” recounts a formative lesson taught to him by saxophonist George Coleman. “After the set George asked me, ‘Do you want some butter with them rolls?’ I was playing too much. He wanted me to be more like Billy Higgins. If you listen to Hank Mobley’s Straight No Filter, they do a tune called ‘Soft Impressions’ where McCoy Tyner is on fire, but Billy never plays a fill. It’s just straight through the top like George was talking about. For me, that’s really the bible of no fills.”
The continuity of tradition represented by the album is also captured in its cover photo, which 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.”
“City of Sounds” was produced by Paul Stache and Damon Smith,
recorded live at Smoke Jazz & Supper Club, NYC from February 19-21, 2021
and mastered to ½” analog tape using a Studer mastering deck.
Joe Farnsworth · City of Sounds
Smoke Sessions Records · Release Date: October 1, 2021
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