Liner Notes for WISDOM RISING:
It is quite fashionable these days for jazz enthusiasts to pose the question, is jazz dead, in much the way boxing fans muse about the imminent demise of their sport. This self-pitying form of navel gazing is possibly a reflection that many people who love jazz have forced themselves always to believe that this music is in some state of crisis or in some form of survival mode. If the music is seemingly on life support, it makes their love of the music seem more like true commitment, to love something that no one appreciates.
But when one enters any Starbucks or any Ann Taylor boutique or sees a television commercial for Lexus or BMW automobiles, it is hard to imagine that jazz is anything like dead. Indeed, it seems in America that the voice of Billie Holiday or the horn of Miles Davis is used to sell virtually anything upscale. Jazz is the soundtrack for the appearance of sophistication. (Considering jazz’s decidedly disreputable social origins, this turnabout seems one of the great American upward mobility stories.) Of course, as saxophonist Frank G. Fontaine points out as a “realist,” one thinks about ‘slumping record sales” and “the Chapter 11 of Tower Records and Sound Warehouse” and wonder if a market or an audience exists at all in America for serious music-making of the sort that jazz is, where excellent musicians really take chances to reach new depths in exploring what our lives mean. It is perhaps the problem with jazz today that it exists for so many as an emblem of taste, as a type of background music for the upper-middle class, but not as an emotionally meaningful experience of artistic expression. Listening to jazz is now meant to decorate or ornament your life; it is not meant to grab you by the throat and change your life. It is a sign of how diminished and impoverished our culture has become over the last fifty years that all we wish for show and distraction, sensation and titillation.
This sad state of affairs in our nation’s cultural life makes a CD like Frank Fontaine’s Wisdom Rising not only something of a revelation but also something heroic, simply because it so insists on being listened to seriously and because it is so inspiring in that insistence. Here is music that truly believes in itself. It was recorded in one seven-hour session. “No overdubs. No fixes,” Frank maintains. In other words, inspired music played by inspired musicians. Here is music that is so alive that a listener is reminded of the glorious challenge of being alive which is what any art worth its salt is supposed to do.
Frank is thirty years old, is the offspring of a Mexican mother and a Creole father, Frank Sr., who worked for Duke Ellington for over ten years and introduced his son to jazz greats like trumpeters Sweets Edison and Freddie Hubbard and pianist Oscar Peterson, and to an intuitive understanding of jazz as something more than a form of mechanics but rather a sense of awareness. He has overcome his share of personal demons to arrive at the point where he could create a CD like Wisdom Rising, consisting of original compositions by a man who is assured of and comfortable with the things he wants to do artistically, who knows why he wants to do what he finds himself doing. It is mature music, songs of fierce tears and sweet fatalism.
Frank, who has had little formal musical training, comes to this project with the passion and daring of the autodidact, the great American tinker, understanding that small variations can create great individuality and that novelty is not the heart and soul of originality. There are a great number of references in his playing: one hears echoes of Sonny Rollins in track # 4 “Interlude,” and of John Coltrane in Track # 7 “Interlude,” the latter which Frank admits was prompted by his love of Coltrane’s album of duets with drummer Rashid Ali called “Interstellar Space.” “You, Me, and the Bean,” an absolutely wonderful tune with a touch of mystery in the sax-stated melody and warmth and color in the vibes voicings, conjures up the great Wayne Shorter. And the more boppish and blues-oriented “Urban Aristocracy,” “Wisdom Rising,” with its tricky meter, “Jalalabad News,” another tune I especially like, suggest Joe Henderson at moments. But these references tie this music to the deep traditions of post-World War II jazz, particularly to the glory days of Blue Note Records in the 1960s, without trapping the music within a particular milieu. Frank evokes these giants of the jazz saxophone but in the end does not sound like anyone but himself. That is to say, no one could imagine anyone else but Frank playing quite this music in quite this same way. The music does not copy Blue Note Records as much as reinvented it; while listening to this music, no one would ever mistake for music made forty years ago. There are elements of Latin/Cuban music that tinges many of the pieces here but in ways that are integral to the compositions, not exotic added effects. This is jazz music, forged in the crucible of a stern, demanding heritage, that is meant to be express what we are and how we are living now and not meant as some homage to the past.
There are so many remarkable moments of music making on this CD: the guitar playing Ronald Muldrow on the opening lilting blues track “Flowers for Rose.” “Ronald is not a very ‘flashy’ player but I really love where he puts his notes,” Frank observes. This is Muldrow’s last recording. He died shortly after from a massive heart attack. So, “Wisdom Rising” serves, in some sense, as an informal memorial. Other moments: the strong drumming of Smitty Smith on all the tracks and his fine solo on “Urban Aristocracy;” the fleet vibes playing of Nick Mancini on “You, Me, and the Bean” and “Jalalabad News;” the bright piano solo by John Beasley on “Eleventh Hour Blues.” And Frank’s playing is compelling throughout. He is not afraid to push the boundaries in his solos, yet his playing always remains strongly grounded in the blues and always bounded by a deeply-felt, moving lyricism that instantly communicates with the audience. This is richly played, virtuosic professional jazz but highly accessible music.
Is jazz dead? Frank answered the question this way when I posed it to him: “This morning I was jogging to the gym that I play basketball at. I had my Ipod blasting John Coltrane’s Coltrane Jazz and I heard something that I’ve NEVER heard before. I know Coltrane Jazz inside and out… Does this mean that I was remiss in my previous listening? NO! It means that this music is ‘LIVING.’ Jazz will never stop speaking to us.”
With CDs like Wisdom Rising, I am glad to say that reports of the death of jazz have been greatly exaggerated. Jazz ain’t dead, to paraphrase a headline from Billboard a few decades ago, it ain’t even sick.
Dr. Gerald Early
Washington University in St. Louis