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Pianist James Carney's 'Pure Heart' Is A Party Where Everyone's Eager To Mingle


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Composer James Carney with a hat tip to his central New York roots - "Mayor Of Marcellus." That's a nice little town. It's from the pianist's new album "Pure Heart," recorded in 2016 but worth waiting for. Carney's good idea was to round up diverse musicians in a sextet that cuts across generations, stylistic preferences and social circles. The three horn players hadn't played together before, but they blend well, even when the terrain keeps shifting. Trumpeter Steph Richards, tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and Oscar Noriega, mostly on the low, woody bass clarinet.


WHITEHEAD: Most of these players didn't know each other before recording "Pure Heart," but James Carney gave them ample opportunity to mix. In many jazz bands with multiple horns, wind players don't get to improvise together. But here they do. The horns in conversation feed off each other's ideas. On one exchange between trumpeter Steph Richards and saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, she grabs a descending two-note figure he plays on tenor and reworks it, letting it waft downward like a falling leaf.


WHITEHEAD: And right at the end there, Ravi Coltrane calls back the falling two-note figure that episode started with. There are also three-way conversations among the horns, where Oscar Noriega jumps on bass clarinet. These trial logs aren't so different in principle from the jostle of horns and old New Orleans jazz bands, but here the improvised colloquies may have an inquisitive air. There are a lot of rising phrases, as if these new acquaintances were asking questions.


WHITEHEAD: In collective improvising from Dixieland to Miles Davis's funky "Bitches Brew," the rhythm section plays a crucial role in defining ensemble style. It wasn't only the horn players who didn't know each other before this project; it was the first meetup of two New York mainstays, bassist Dezron Douglas and drummer Tom Rainey. They make a tough team, kicking the band along. Here they are with Ravi Coltrane and the leader.


WHITEHEAD: Pianist James Carney's compositions are just complex enough, not too clever. They let the players expound without making them tongue-tied. Carney has a good sense of ensemble color. And to judge by his album "Pure Heart," he has good instincts about interpersonal chemistry. He throws a party where everyone's eager to mingle.



Kevin Whitehead is the author of the new book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." He reviewed "Pure Heart," the new album by jazz pianist James Carney.

On tomorrow's show, Miami Herald columnist and author Carl Hiaasen. We'll talk about the pandemic and politics in Florida and his latest novel, a hilarious satirical crime story set in Palm Beach involving wealthy widows, the president and first lady and some very large Burmese pythons. It's called "Squeeze Me." I hope you can join us.


DAVIS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. And today, we are very happy to introduce our new associate producer Kayla Lattimore. Welcome, Kayla. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.