Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Fred Simon and the Difference Between New Age and Lyrical Jazz

We've all no doubt sampled the many new age offerings that have been available to us in the last two decades. Some of you may be confirmed enthusiasts for one or more artists, and of course that's just fine. There's also the highly lyrical side of the jazz opus, which predated new age and was in many ways the model for some of what new age music does. Lyrical jazz such as you might find with the group Oregon or Keith Jarrett in a certain mode, notably the Jarrett of "My Song" (part of an older ECM release), combines substantial melodic and harmonic invention with appropriate improvisations in that style. New age may dispense with improvisations and at least some of the music I've heard in that bag can also dispense with the song form altogether to offer pleasant atmospheric doodles and lyric fragments that serve as what my father's generation called "mood music."

Enter pianist-song crafter Fred Simon. His new album Since Forever (Naim Jazz) auspiciously includes a lineup of players who have contributed greatly to the lyrical jazz out there. Most notably Paul McCandless has had a very important part to play in this music. As soprano sax, oboe and multireed personality with Oregon he has managed for many years to combine extreme lyricism with soul and an ability to play inside or outside according to the needs of the moment. Joining the band also is Mark Walter, the current drummer with Oregon, the latest in a line of exceptional artists to occupy that position and not undeserving of praise in his own right. Finally, there is Steve Rodby, bassist with Pat Metheny.

So there are the right sort of sidemen on this session. Other than a lovely retake of Joe Zawinul's "In A Silent Way," the program consists of Fred Simon originals. They are squarely situated in the lyrical jazz camp, as are his rather rhapsodic piano stylings. You get more than an hour of strongly lyrical music, with Simon and McCandless providing the spark of inspiration that keeps the program from falling into new age genericism.

Anyone who is a fan of Oregon and/or the lyrical side of Keith Jarrett will find this music most appealing, I think. It is not limpid to the point of enervation and it has the improvisational element through strong soloing from the principals. It is the sort of disk that stands up well to close listening, but also provides the backdrop for cool beans cocktail parties, not that I especially like such musical applications, but people are going to do this and Fred Simon may pick up some converts in spite of the chatter that will threaten to drown him out. (This is nothing new. Do you suppose many people actually listened closely to Handel's Water Music when it was originally performed? It was party time! Later for the masterwork status and the hushed adulation of every strain in the concert hall.) Ultimately, Fred Simon will be heard and he should be at that.

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