As one of jazz’s more restless saxophonists of his generation, Jeremy Udden has moved from the “melodic jazz-rock” of his Torchsongs ensemble to the country/folk-inflected jazz of Plainville. And now, the Plainville formula gets a nice tweaking by the introduction of harmolodics into the mix. Folk Art, as the album is called, is mostly a connected suite of songs taking us through pastoral notions colored by the improvisational the freedom of jazz. “Folk Art” is not just the name of the album, it refers to that suite, where through most of the journey Udden’s alto sax is backed by Brandon Seabrook’s banjo, Jeremy Stratton’s standup bass and Kenny Wolleson’s drums.
Seabrook’s banjo is the obvious focal point of the rural flavor in Udden’s jazz. Seabrook, whose made his own mark on experimental music in a more in-your-face way with his Seabrook Power Plant group, is one of the most original banjo players around. Aside from Bela Fleck, he’s the only other soul I know of with the gumption to apply this instrument to jazz. But Seabrook tamps down his punk ethos to blend into Udden’s concept, and manages to do so while remaining nontraditional. He can wring truly ghostly sounds from it on the cold, stark “Prospect” (on which Udden’s blows warmth through his sensitively played alto), make tactical use of tremolo as he does on “Up,” or provide counterpoints to Udden as in “Bartok.”
Wolleson is not such a highly regarded drummer for nothin’, and it’s the subtle things he does all over the suite that live up to his reputation. His sublime mallet work set the tone for “Prospect,” and the detail in his hushed rhythms on “Portland” is top-notch. However, Udden remains very much in charge. He leads a rhythm-less theme with Seabrook in the Ornette-ish construction called “Up” even though he plays his sax quite mellifluously. Udden dances around Stratton’s wandering bass lines on the Seabrook-less “In Another Country” and devises an implied rhythm as Wolleson improvises underneath during “Our Hero.”
Will Graefe and Nathan Blehar each contribute a brief solo acoustic guitar piece, “Train” and “Dress Variations,” respectively, that Udden included because they help to complete the conceptual picture of the Folk Art theme.
The last two songs are a little like appendages tacked on to the end of the album, because they’re outside of the suite. Instead, these are Plainville songs performed by the Plainville ensemble (Udden; Pete Rende, rhodes; Seabrook, el. guitar; Eivind Opsvik, bass; R.J. Miller, drums; and Nathan Blehar, acoustic guitar). The change is sound is immediately noticeable on “Jesse” as a result of the rough edges of the electric guitar and the rhodes, but all of the changes in personnel and instruments do little to change the character of the musical approach of Udden (even though the Plainville songs were not composed by him). “Thomas” is acoustic guitar led but this time the guitarist and composer Blehar is accompanied by a full band, flashing out fully the style of those earlier interludes.
Thus, those two extra tracks are hardly afterthoughts and fit into Udden’s unique vision. In discreet, open-ended ways, Folk Art is a cohesive manifestation of the high art of Jeremy Udden.