Instrumental blues, fusion and funk are typically live-experience genres that depend upon ensemble empathy and the living groove. They pose an interesting challenge in the recording studio: The question is not whether the players can approximate the interplay, spontaneity and organic dynamics of live performance in the lab environment of the studio – of course they can – but whether, once captured, that level of content and energy translates to the listener’s speakers much at all. What is rousing and immersive live can often be curiously flat and predictable when committed to tape. It is at this point of rude awakening that players (you know what I mean: players, cats) must suddenly conceive of themselves as composers, arrangers and producers and face the unique storytelling challenges of recording – that is, if they want their record to appeal to more than just other players and niche fans.
Jeremy Baum, the high-visibility regional keyboard ace, has all this covered. On his excellent new CD The Eel – his second as leader – Baum employs many smart and savvy strategies in preparing what is essentially live music for the other important music delivery system. First up is repertoire: Baum augments his originals (more on those shortly) with some choice covers and witty genre appropriations.
The album opens with a Beck cover: “The New Pollution” reenvisioned, quite naturally, as a spare and simple Booker T groove statement. Eight tracks later, in the penultimate position, we find a moody, gospelized pass at “Purple Rain” – which, now that I mention it, always was moody and gospelized, wasn’t it? In between is a James Brown tune (straight dutiful homage for anyone in the blues/funk field) and, perhaps the most surprising, a homey and rocking take on the Orleans soft-rock classic “Dance with Me.”
None of these covers is very radical; radical genre displacement and recontextualization are not the point. The point, in groove as in the jazz tradition, is the discovery of a sturdy, timeless tune that makes a great vehicle for improvisation and extrapolation.
Improvisation – solos, specifically – typically occasion the other rude studio awakening for players. Moonshot histrionics and straight burnin’ rarely translate well to records, and here is one of the reasons The Eel is such a successful effort. Baum himself is not a flat-out blower and speed demon. You won’t find any base crowd-pleasing gestures in his playing. He is an articulate, precise and phrase-oriented soloist with great feel for line definition and note choice. While the understated session leader divvies up solo time evenly among himself and a fleet of really good bluesy guitarists, it is Baum’s own clarified, tuneful and thoughtful solos that elevate these jams.
Baum has obviously learned a lot about the Zen of groove-based songwriting from John Scofield and other masters of the form. Nothing fails the groove arts more than the song-as-a-vessel-of-solos approach. A groove, a riff and a dynamic arc do not a song make; and yet, one arrangement detail too many and suddenly, your swinging groove tune is a prog suite. No-no. Baum treads the line perfectly. “Funky Monkey” is a relaxed groove-blues in the style of the Meters, with a clever head that reminds me of Scofield circa Uberjam. “Three More Bottles” – a song with winning vocals courtesy of Chris O’Leary – is a rollicking New Orleans piano piece driven with great subtlety and warmth by drummer Michael Bram. It is one of Baum’s most delightful compositions as well. On “Charlie Baum” and “The Eel,” Baum permits a little more formal ambition, with witty heads and multiple meter and groove changes: Fusion, yes, but it never violates the homely grooving essence of the project.
The Eel was recorded – well-recorded – by Dave Gross at Fat Rabbit Studios in Montclair, New Jersey. The mixes are warm and natural, with plenty of breathing room in which to appreciate the palpability of the Hammond organ and the grand piano. In this genre, of course, much of the mixing is preaccomplished via the arranging, so Baum gets to claim a lot of the credit for these spacious, distinct mixes as well.
Jeremy Baum celebrates the release of The Eel with several local appearances: Saturday, March 29 at 9 p.m. at the Golden Rail in Newburgh; Friday, April 4 at 9 p.m. at 12 Grapes in Peekskill; and Saturday, April 5 at 9 p.m. at the Turning Point in Piermont. For more information on the shows and the CD, visit www.jeremybaum.com.