To oversimplify a bit, jazz players can be roughly divided into two galaxies: those who want to play tunes, and those who want to play free—and never the twain shall meet.
But pianist/composer Kazzrie Jaxen’s quartet—with Charley Krachy (sax), Don Messina (bass), and Bill Chattin (drums)—manages to do both at the same time on the album Callicoon Sessions. They play tunes—“My Foolish Heart,” “Melancholy Baby,” “All of Me,” etc.—but Jaxen and Krachy also go whither their imaginations take them, irrespective of the underlying chord structure.
What’s more, no matter how far out Jaxen or Krachy might get, they don’t sound out. There is always a narrative logic that keeps them in, even if they’ve left the harmonic neighborhood far behind. On top of that, the quartet swings like em-efs, thanks in large part to what poet Mark
Weber, who is sponsoring these concerts with his spouse, Janet Simon, calls an “unrelenting pulse” from Messina and Chattin. You can dance to this stuff—you want to dance to this stuff.
In short, the Kazzrie Jaxen quartet, whose address lies somewhere in the Lennie Tristano galaxy rather than either of the aforementioned clusters, plays some of the most imaginative and exhilarating jazz you are likely to hear anytime soon, producing beautiful musical statements out of what appears to be thorny musical contradictions.
Driving down from Boston
When Chattin and Jaxen were studying at Berklee, they would drive down to New York City once a week to study with jazz pianist/composer/visionary Lennie Tristano. A controversial figure in the jazz world, Tristano has been accused of being too cerebral, emotionally cold, and unimportant, while others have championed him as ahead of his time, a legitimate heir to Pops and Pres and Bird who opened a new path for jazz’s development.
For Jaxen, it was the siren call of the first Tristano recording she ever heard, “Requiem,” a multitracked piano blues written in tribute to Charlie Parker. “It was like getting called by that piece of music to something,” she says. “It was like hearing the soul of a person I was supposed to rendezvous with. . . . It’s the feeling in every note. There’s a feeling in the way that he’s playing that piano that just pierced right through my heart.”
Playing the feeling
One of the hallmarks of Tristano’s teaching, says Jaxen, was that he stressed the melodic line, the melody of a tune, as the core from which the players improvise. Of course, you learn the chords and hear the chords, but the melody is the improvisational center. “It frees you from the chord,” she says. “You’re not bound by a chord structure. The melody . . . frees you to play what you’re hearing and feeling.
“It’s all about feeling,” Jaxen adds. “It’s the feeling core, and that’s what we’re sharing when we’re playing, and it’s all intuitive.”
Intuitive, not cerebral.
“When I play, I don’t think,” Krachy says. “We just kind of listen to each other and let the sounds do whatever they’re going to do, and out come the notes.”
It’s a different angle on improvisation. Though Armstrong, Monk, and others asserted the supremacy of the melody, most modern players play off “the changes,” the chord structure of a tune. Even though they may alter the changes, they remain tied to the harmonic structure.
Spinning an improv out of the melodic strand, though, allows the player to roam more freely, which is how the quartet manages to play a tune, yet play free at the same time. The improvisational line follows the feeling, and the feeling supplies the narrative logic that keeps the listener oriented even in turbulent moments. It’s playing with an intelligent heart.
Messina and Chattin play a critical role in the coherence of the performance, anchoring the quartet in the tune with precise time-keeping and a devotion to the tune’s form. “The form is
sacred,” says Messina.
While Jaxen and Krachy might start and stop phrases wherever they like, and lay back or push time, Messina stays firmly anchored in the form with a metronomic precision. This applies equally to his solos. “I don’t think there is a difference between a bass line and a bass solo. They’re two ways of expressing the same feeling, and it’s still about the quarter note. The quarter note is establishing the time. . . . It’s all about playing a melodic line and listening to what else is happening.” As a result, unlike many bassists, Messina keeps the groove and the bottom in place during his solos.
Chattin has “his own unique way of cooking a tune,” says Jaxen, and he, too, prides himself on keeping perfect time. That comes with practicing with a metronome for decades, as directed by Tristano. Chattin studied drums for years before meeting Tristano, who had a different angle on the drum kit: he treated each limb as a separate instrument.
“The high hat with the left foot is an instrument. The bass drum with the bass drum pedal is an instrument. The left hand is an instrument. The cymbal with the right hand is an instrument,” Chattin says.
You play separate lines on each instrument and “meld them together, which drum teachers never teach you to do,” he says. “You create your own little tunes to learn how to improvise.”
Chattin would write out parts for his four limbs and play them for Tristano. “When you do that for a couple years,” he says, “you have an independence that you’re just not going to get any other way.”
Making the past present
As modern as the quartet sounds, they nonetheless have a healthy regard for the music of their antecedents. You might hear a flash of Dixieland in a Jaxen solo, or echoes of Pres in Krachy’s tone and improvisational arc.
That’s the consequence of another Tristano technique: singing along with great solos from the masters. “Again, it’s all about feeling,” says Jaxen. “You would sing along with great solos—Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Roy Eldridge. You ingest them, but not to imitate them. It was never about that. . . . We are in the present, but they are so part of us.”
Singing the solos with feeling is a fun activity that bypasses the brain. It’s quite different from transcribing solos, which engages what Jaxen calls “the thinking brain.” Everybody was expected to do this, including the drummers. Jaxen recalls singing along with a Kenny Clarke solo over the course of a year, trying to get his ride beat on the cymbal.
“Aside from transmitting the history of jazz to us, it transmitted the swing, the core of jazz, and the note-to-note feeling of a great improviser—that you’re not playing patterns, you’re not thinking when you play. You are in the moment, in the note.”
Playing tunes and free
Now that my oversimplification has served its purpose, I should note that the quartet both plays tunes and spontaneously composes—i.e., creates improvised compositions. They are equally comfortable in either galaxy, and their improvised compositions are as architecturally sound as the written tunes. Whatever they are playing, they stay grounded in the exhilarating moment.
Interlace I and II
Thursday and Friday, May 5 and 6, 7:30 p.m.
Weil Hall at the Outpost Performance Space
210 Yale SE, Albuquerque
Tickets $20, general admission/$15, members and students
$35, two-night pass/$25, two-night pass, members and students
For more info and tickets, go here or call 268-0044.
Program details can be found here.
© 2016 Mel Minter. All rights reserved.