There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
For jazz musicians, the trick of tackling world-beat albums is making the schtick not sound like schlock. To that end, Canadian pianist and composer Renee Rosnes covers a lot of ground on her ambitious new CD, Life on Earth. One minute we’re sauntering to the breezy Brazilian grooves of “Hanuman”; the next, we’re drenched in sweat from the humidly funky “Senegal Son.” Rosnes even whisks us off to the northern Canadian tundra, in the surprisingly flinty “Icelight,” and the Greek Mediterranean, in the haunting “The Call of Triton.” Indeed, there’s so much here that Life on Earth at first appears too overarching and earnest to succeed.
But thanks to Rosnes’ exuberant compositions, which are deftly animated by an all-star lineup that includes bassists Christian McBride and John Patitucci; drummers Jeff “Tain” Watts and Rosnes’ husband, Billy Drummond; saxophonist Chris Potter; trombonist Steve Turre; and other high-profile musicians, the album more often than not veers off the slippery-sloped road that leads to the valley of world-beat pap. Rosnes’ richly textured tunes are underscored by a sweeping sense of humanitarianism, enlivened by infectious rhythms, and delivered with melodic and harmonic grace.
It helps that Rosnes is a stellar pianist. She’s held down the piano chair in ensembles led by recently departed luminaries J.J. Johnson and Joe Henderson, played with the recently defunct Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, and released a series of advanced-bebop albums that have steadily moved her into the upper echelons of contemporary jazz keyboardists. Rooted in post-bop, she plays with a joyous dance sensibility. The new album’s dazzling opener, “Empress Afternoon,” is a perfect example: Rosnes races alongside a restless violin figure from Laura Seaton through every nimble zig and zag. Then she suddenly leaps over Zakir Hussain’s quicksilver tabla patterns and McBride’s robust, but no less agile, bass lines. And then, despite the fast pace, Rosnes unspools an inventive, melodic, and decidedly unhurried solo.
Similarly, on “Senegal Son,” Rosnes lays down a nasty three-note figure that rolls just a little behind the beat with her left hand while she hammers out a jaunty unison accompaniment to Steve Nelson’s marimbas with her right. And when it comes time for her bristling, bluesy solo, the interlocking groove of Mor Thiam’s rumbling djembe rhythms, Patitucci’s sensuous bass figure, and Watts’ sizzling hi-hat and snare patterns provides the perfect backdrop.
For all her rhythmic power, Rosnes is surprisingly comfortable with ballads, especially the Frances Landesman and Thomas Wolfe-penned “Ballad of the Sad Young Men” included here. The song is from the 1959 musical The Nervous Set, and although Rosnes’ version was recorded in May of last year, it has undeniably gained resonance since Sept. 11. If you hadn’t read the liner notes, you might guess that she recorded it the day after the attacks—her melody flickers against Drummond’s vibrant cymbal work and Patitucci’s emphatic bass accompaniment like candlelight at a vigil. Nonetheless, the track is completely without the sentimentality that might dampen lesser
versions—and is among the album’s most spellbinding moments.
Equally poignant is Rosnes’ rendition of Manuel de Falla’s Andalusian “Nana.” More romantic than the sobering “Ballad of the Sad Young Men,” “Nana” is a masterful display of controlled intensity: Rosnes delivers a seductive solo that crescendos into ecstasy while Drummond provides sensitive tom and cymbals fills and Patitucci turns in a virile bass counterpoint. And “The Call of Triton,” though relatively easygoing, is just as forceful, with beautiful harmonies played
by Potter on bass clarinet, Turre on conch shells, and Shelley Brown on flute.
Excellent playing can’t always compensate for shoddy concepts, however, and Rosnes makes some curious conceptual missteps. For the most part, she has shaped material in which her ethnomusicological fascinations amount to more than exotic tchotchke-gathering. But she occasionally lets musical tourism lead her astray. The otherwise fine “Icelight,” for example, which features a driving, harmonically thick tenor saxophone from Walt Weiskopf and some unfettered bop soloing from Rosnes, takes a nose dive when Kevin Tarrant bursts out of nowhere with a Native American chant. Something similar happens on “Hanuman,” which Rosnes begins with a sample of a Balinese ketjak taken from a field recording. After a thick Balinese-horn chorus, the song is suddenly off to Brazil via a samba groove fueled by Duduka Da Fonseca’s array of percussion and Watts’ forceful drumming. The chorus works to good effect, but the opening chant just seems cheap, especially when you compare it with Potter’s sensational tenor solo and Rosnes’ nimble piano work.
It would be interesting to hear Rosnes explore one of Life
on Earth’s locales more deeply instead of skipping here and there. Unlike the shotgun-wedding fusion of, say, the Afro-Celt Sound System, the results usually sound natural enough. But for her next record, the pianist would do well to settle on one foreign culture to explore. CP