By Devon Wendell
Romance is deadly. No matter how it’s glamorized in books, poems, songs, plays, or movies, it’s a dangerous state of being. It’s chaos driven by pure impulsivity without measuring the consequences of what waits for you on the other side of it all. For a musician it means exposing your vulnerabilities for all to witness. Which is risky. You’re left wide open with nothing to shield you from those who may want to use your weaknesses against you.
In the midst of the wild machismo-laden bravado that initially made up the jazz world, artists like Lester Young and Miles Davis went to those places fearlessly. They made it look and sound so easy, but it was far from simplistic. Once that box is opened, it’s hard to close it, even when it becomes overbearing.
Trumpeter Art Farmer too had the skill and courage to plunge into that dark abyss with wild abandon with his sweet, luscious tone and often minimalist approach to phrasing. Farmer could swing with a fast and virtuosic flurry of notes, but he chose those moments carefully, much like Miles Davis and Kenny Dorham. That is the mark of a true master. Always know which aspects of your abilities to expose at precisely the right moments.
Art Farmer recorded two sessions for Prestige Records in 1954; the first took place on January 20th, featuring Sonny Rollins, tenor saxophone, Horace Silver, piano, Percy Heath, bass, and Kenny Clarke on drums. The second session, from November 9th, consists of Farmer joined by his twin brother Addison Farmer on bass, Wynton Kelly, piano, and Herbie Lovelle on drums. The two sessions became the aptly titled Early Art album, Farmer’s second recording as a band leader.
The kind of romance experienced when listening to this album goes much deeper than one pining away for unrequited or lost love, or being in the maddening throes of a passionate courtship or tryst. On up-tempo compositions like “Soft Shoe,” Horace Silver’s “Confab In Tempo” and “Wisteria,” you get the distinct impression that Farmer, Rollins, Silver, Heath, and Clarke are romanticizing the end of the bebop era in its purist form. The harmonic, melodic and rhythmic structure of these pieces are in the same vein as what Bird & Diz, Fats Navarro and Tadd Dameron, Dexter Gordon, Wardell Grey and a young Miles Davis were doing in the mid to late ‘40s. “Wisteria” sounds like a direct tribute to Fats Navarro who died less than four years prior to this recording.
By 1954, pure bebop, the way it was done in its earlier years, was on its way out. By the end of that decade, many of the era’s finest practitioners would be forced into a hand clapping, foot tapping “soul-jazz” bag of accessible and easily marketed clichés. Those wonderfully complex and frenetic early chord progressions would soon be replaced by something easier to swallow and more danceable to jazz tourists. The music on this album is a sadly romantic and final bugle call for all of the beauty, virtuosity, socio-political might, and musical rebellion of that era.
Sonny Rollins plays a lot like Bird here. Rollins was already one of the most phenomenal soloists to emerge from the late ‘40s and would just get greater all the time. Sonny picks up on a composition’s theme and adds broad brush strokes that embellish it from every corner. Farmer swings up-tempo, harkening back to the glory days of Minton’s Playhouse and 52nd Street in New York when it was really jumping. Percy Heath and Kenny Clarke were the greatest rhythm section of 1954 and they are playing with all of their might here; dangerously, as if their lives depended on it.
Then you have the other side of romance, which is more universal and more dangerous. “I’ll Take Romance” and “I’ll Walk Alone” are chilling. This is poetry. No words are needed. That frightening vulnerability and cold isolation runs strong throughout these ballads, often too strong at times. One has to be in the proper mind set for ballads this powerful.
Farmer’s slow, desperate and breathy phrasing reminds me of Billie Holiday when “Lady Day” became acutely aware of her mortality as it bore down on her like a freight train. Wynton Kelly’s wonderfully twisted harmonic capabilities creates an even darker and menacing landscape on “Autumn Nocturne” and “Alone Together” from the second session. Addison Farmer’s bass lines ride perfectly beneath the surface, as does Herbie Lovelle’s subtle yet colorful drumming. This is the most spine tingling rendition of “alone Together” I can think of.
“Gone With The Wind” is played up-tempo. Farmer swings mercilessly, demonstrating his incredible sense of dynamics. That sweetly elegant yet burning swing of Art Farmer is just unrelenting.
The album concludes with “Pre Amp” which is a precursor to Miles Davis’ “Blues By Five.” The head sounds almost identical. The delicate interplay between Farmer and Kelly is incredible. The band is locked in tight. Farmer and Kelly solo briefly but return to the stated melody line before ending the number abruptly. This sounds like a quick impromptu warm up, but still every note Farmer plays is perfect.
Art Farmer’s Early Art deals with love, longing, romance, and sadness. And you feel every bit of danger and mastery that comes with the ability to express those emotions so openly in that wonderful life giving art form called jazz.