Mainstream Jazz Drummer Joe Farnsworth Taps Wynton Marsalis, Kenny Barron and Peter Washington For ‘Time to Swing’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

The estimable status of drummer Joe Farnsworth is reflected in this stellar quartet consisting of the iconic Wynton Marsalis who is rarely a sideman, legendary pianist Kenny Barron, and top-shelf bassist Peter Washington.  It’s a quartet that boasts two NEA Jazz Masters in Marsalis and Barron, led by one of the premiere straight-ahead drummers of his generation. Time To Swing is a joyous album, rife with superlative tone and spirit from all four players. For the humble, ever-growing in confidence Farnsworth, this debut for Smoke Session Records is truly special.

One could say the impetus for these sessions dates back to 1985, as the drummer was preparing to enter his senior year of high school and had his life changed by the release of Marsalis’ seminal Black Codes (From the Underground)

Nearly two decades later, after building an impressive resume with legends such as Benny Golson, George Coleman, Curtis Fuller, Horace Silver, Cecil Payne, Harold Mabern, as well as Diana Krall, Farnsworth received the call from Marsalis that would result in the acclaimed 2005 Blue Note album Live at the House of Tribes where Farnsworth played in a sextet led by the trumpeter. The two continued to pursue separate paths from there, reconnecting from time to time under Marsalis’s auspices at the helm of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Most recently, Farnsworth joined the world-renowned JCLO for a late-2018 tribute to Thelonious Monk, followed by the drummer being enlisted for the trumpeter’s quintet to record the soundtrack for Edward Norton’s film Motherless Brooklyn.

The time (to swing) was finally right, Farnsworth decided, to invite Marsalis to participate in a project of his own. Marsalis joins the band for the first four of the ten tracks on Time To Swing, displaying the emotive virtuosity, bold tone and impeccable sense of swing that are his trademarks. So, the album consists of four quartet tunes, a solo drum piece, and five trio pieces. Regardless of configuration, the music remains highly energetic, befitting the album title.

The quartet opens with Farnsworth’s original composition “The Good Shepherd,’ the title of which is a nod to Marsalis, but also to the many elders who have shared their experiences and wisdom with Farnsworth over the years. 

Marsalis’ brisk “Hesitation” was originally recorded on the trumpeter’s self-titled debut in 1982, and here gives his muted horn an agile workout, propelled by Washington’s nimble bass and Farnsworth’s propulsive beat, well before Barron makes his belated entrance with a barrage of angular jabs. Conversely, the pianist’s lush chords set the tone for a gorgeous rendition of “Darn That Dream,” the nocturnal atmosphere airily suggested by Farnsworth’s brushwork, delicately floating beneath Marsalis’ emotive lyricism. The mood turns raucous with the tent revival vibe of the spiritual “Down By the Riverside,” more evidence (as if we needed it) that this elite unit can play with fervor in any tempo or mood.

Farnsworth bridges the quartet and trio sections of the set with a solo piece “One for Jimmy Cobb,” dedicated to the legendary drummer of Kind of Blue and beyond, who passed in May. The ensuing trio section is every bit as exciting in its own way. Farnsworth is renowned for his work in the classic piano trios of Cedar Walton, Hank Jones, McCoy Tyner, and Harold Mabern, among others. Now the first call pianist for straight-ahead dates, Kenny Barron, can be added to that roster. The first is a Barron composition, the bracing “Lemuria” reprised from the pianist’s 1991 album Lemuria-Seascape. It features Farnsworth’s most ferocious playing on the date, more than matched by Barron’s powerhouse attack, as animated as this writer has ever heard Barron play.  Farnsworth noticed  Barron toying with Billy Strayhorn’s classic “Prelude to a Kiss” with a Bossa twist while warming up at the date, and quickly added the offbeat arrangement to the repertoire. “Monk’s Dream” is one of the iconic pianist’s prickliest compositions and is rendered here playfully. Washington’s full lush tone colors Duke Ellington’s “The Star-Crossed Lovers,” and the session ends with the carefree jubilance of “Time Was.”

As renowned drummer Billy Hart comments in his liner notes, “This whole record is happy.” This is first-rate straight-ahead jazz in the hands of these masters who admirably balance joy, conviction, and communication. 

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