Mel Minter on the Kazzrie Jaxen Quartet (May 2016)
The Interlace Concerts, Part 1: the Kazzrie Jaxen Quartet’s Beautiful Contradictions
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 or 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.
October 14, 2014 Concert, Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers Univ., Newark, NJ, photobook by Ed Berger on Flickr.
Kazzrie Jaxen Quartet - "When the heart soars" (written by Helena Clare Pittman) for The River Reporter (Upper Delaware River Valley Magazine) September 25 - October 1, 2014, Vol. 40, No. 39. (Reprinted with permission.)
Kazzrie Jaxen Quartet- "Kazzrie Jaxen Quartet and the Beacon Fires" (created by Mark Weber, poet and photographer) posted on his website at the following link:
Kazzrie Jaxen Quartet article/review from the Sullivan County Democrat, January 18, 2013. (Reprinted with permission.)
From the Journal of Helena Clare Pittman, October 7, 2012:
Jazz in an Autumn Wood
Charley Krachy's saxophone -- where does such beauty come from? Heaven and Earth met.
The tall trees, bright gold leaves touching the sky like a bridge for the music to travel, to pierce through to the waiting Heaven that lives and thirsts in me to be reached.
The antithesis of brutality: music that fills God. This ladder of human depth that provides a house of living worship for us, the listeners, a pentecostal congregation who live in unknowing, waiting to understand who we are.
Until Kazzrie Jaxen, Charley Krachy, Don Messina and Bill Chattin assemble and slowly, with the playing of the music, become the mountain top where God and Man dance in sheer, unobstructed heights and distillation of joy.
To be there and see, not only hear, seeing and hearing become one: soft, lovely lamb, Kazzrie Jaxen's transformation suddenly into a lion of time and sound and structure, the piano as melody and percussion. An ascension into liberation. The lion and lamb not lying down, but dancing -- able to become themselves only in each other's presence. Her music has not been heard before, though Lennie Tristano's soul sings and worships in her. Earth shattering harmony and melody undulate through her structures. But her music is original, individual, a signature of this great and beautiful artist, a living master. Powerful, releasing her depths, cutting roads through the wilderness sky.
And we were so lucky to have been called there to rise, to experience Bill Chattin's drums. It is tempting to say that he vanishes into the depths of his mastery, the sensitivity of his rhythms and melodies. But it seems truer to say that he merges with his drums and becomes a heart that responds to the unfolding beat of the oceans, of tributaries Kazzrie, Don, and Charley. How does such a big, kind man vanish? Like the prayer of John the Baptist -- "Thou must increase, I must decrease."
Don Messina's bass was like whispered poetry, the quiet between the notes, a hush that vibrated in the solar plexus, like Sufic meditation, which effect it had.
Sometimes virtuosic players merge into the thing that they were clearly born for. That's what we witnessed yesterday afternoon in Callicoon as this quartet played their gorgeous sequence of tunes. Four jazz masters open, listening, responding -- to each other.
I've been to many jazz concerts. At this one the audience came to some sort of silent accord: not to applaud each player -- though a conundrum, a conflict, difficult to set this response aside. But it was clear that we who were brought together by this high and mighty music had discovered we must not move with the jazz tradition of such immediate tribute after the beauty of a solo. In that intimate setting it would have drawn the players out of the depths they were in, like people ascending, tumbling back to earth. The audience held its applause until the end of each piece.
When I was young I was part of a group that followed the teachings of the great mystic master, G.I. Gurdjieff. I remember stories of the word going out suddenly of Mr. Gurfjieff's arrival. People dropped what they were doing to be in the presence of a great presence. This concert felt like a parallel.
These great musicians listen to each other. They took us with them. Part of the audience as I was, I sensed we all merged. And we all rose that day. And were grateful.
Helena Clare Pittman, Author/Artist/Jazz Listener, October 7, 2012