Like the piano trio and the five piece trumpet, saxophone, and rhythm configuration (think Miles Davis' classic 60s quintet), there is a bit of tradition behind the vibes and piano quartet in jazz. The first band of this sort that leaps to my mind is the Modern Jazz Quartet with John Lewis and Milt Jackson. Gary Burton also used this lineup for a very fruitful collaboration with pianist Makoto Ozone during the mid-1980s, as has Bobby Hutcherson on some of my favorite Blue Note sides - 'Oblique' and 'Happenings.' The inherent mellowness of the vibraphone, blended with the harmonically rich sound of the piano, lends itself to a soft, dreamy, impressionistic sort of sound. I generally don't expect to hear a lot of high energy music when I see this sort of lineup. That is, until I heard Mark Sherman's new 2-CD set, Live at the Bird's Eye.
Sherman, who also plays piano keyboards and all manner of percussion, is a Bronx-born, Juilliard-trained veteran of the New York music scene. I first learned about his music back in the early 1980s from a college friend who had a few copies of Sherman's fantastic debut LP, 'Fulcrum Point' with Kenwood Dennard, Delmar Brown, Mark Gould, and Rael Wesley Grant. That plugged-in band played a brash, super-energetic form of fusion that was itself a surprising variation on the MJQ-esque vibes/piano/bass/drums lineup. However, 'Fulcrum Point,' like most of Sherman's recent recordings, added a horn to the front line.
On Live at the Bird's Eye, Sherman eschews the horn and presents two hours worth of invigorating and inspired modern jazz. The music here is relentlessly energetic, hard-charging, and brimming with sparkling improvisations from Sherman and his road-tested band: pianist Allen Farnham, drummer Tim Horner, and bassist Dean Johnson.
The first CD, comprised of five original tunes by Sherman, kicks off with 'Tip-Top Blues' an up-tempo piece with a Monk-ish twist that serves as an ample introduction to each member of the band, who all contribute gritty, soulful solos. 'The Winning Life' has a lovely melody that has taken up residence in my mind for the past few days - quite a bit like those wonderful tunes that Steve Swallow would write for Gary Burton's group. Though this piece is outwardly quite lyrical, Sherman solos with an uncannily focused intensity only to be matched by pianist Allen Farnham who sounds like he's simultaneously channeling the living spirits of Chick Corea and McCoy Tyner. Yet, its drummer Tim Horner who almost runs away with this one - he goes beyond mere support here, goading and coaxing both soloists to greater heights. 'Trust' is a gorgeous, swaying modal soul-jazz piece in 6/4 time with inspired, gutsy solos by Sherman and Farnham. The pianist's peaceful, but not placid, ballad ('Hope') follows. The dynamic, Coltrane-inspired 'Hardship' closes the first CD on a mountain-high note. What this quartet is doing on this track is some of the deepest and best modern jazz I've heard in the past couple of months. Each member of the group is spot-on for 13+ minutes of concentrated, high-level musical interaction. With all due respect to the leader, Allen Farnham's solo on this piece is absolutely bonkers. I'd give my eye teeth to have been in the audience for this one!
The second CD opens with 'Explorations,' another Coltrane-inspired modal piece, this time in 6/8, a tad more complex than the material on CD #1. Sherman and the quartet effectively maintain the high level of inspired musicianship - Horner's bustling, endlessly mobile drums, and Dean Johnson's deep, woody bass do more than just support the soloists; they prod and goad and insist. Sherman and Farnham respond in kind, and spin out truly wondrous extended improvisations before exchanging 8s with Horner to take the tune out. This is followed by a high-energy Latin-y version of 'You Don't Know What Love Is' - as uncanny as it seems, this quartet makes it work. Another standard - "There is No Greater Love" - follows, taken at a moderate tempo with Horner on brushes. Sherman's 'Tip Top Rhythm' is a variation on the line he used in 'Tip Top Blues', though the overall character of this version is a bit more restrained, sophisticated, and Monk-like. Farnham contributes another drop-dead solo here. The 2nd CD closes with Henry Mancini's classic ballad 'Moon River,' an appropriate finale for two sets of high-energy music making.
In summary, Mark Sherman's Live at The Bird's Eye documents an evening with a modern jazz group at the height of its powers. Highly Recommended!