Things you won’t hear on Memoirs Between Brothers, the refreshing debut album from rising D.C. jazz stars the Jolley Brothers: covers of jazz standards; humorous quoting from famous bebop melodies; and tunes with that old, satisfying hard-bop swing.
What you’ll find instead is a collection of 10 original pieces, nine composed by brothers Nate and Noble Jolley and one by their father, all rooted in jazz’s fundamentals but with various degrees of separation from the bop tradition. As the brothers state in the liner notes, this record was conceived as a way to look back at their first 24 years of life together while paying tribute to their late father, a guitarist who endowed them with a love of music. But it’s ultimately a statement about the need to innovate, to find new meaning in the traditions of the past by seizing and building on what’s valuable in the contemporary.
“Wish I could walk alone with you, / Wish I could talk alone with you, / But this lonely road will take you if you don’t take control,” sings the strong and buoyant vocalist Christie Dashiell on “Thank You for the Music,” a song Nate wrote for his father. It’s a perfect summation of the album’s doggedly progressive philosophy.
Memoirs’ very format indicates how tied it is to this sensibility. The album starts with some straight-ahead bop on Noble’s “Two-Fold,” then moves ahead with three more acoustic tunes for either trio or quartet.
By the time we reach the middle of the album, the blue notes have been dialed up. Then comes the disc’s centerpiece, “Parisian Fantasy,” whose esoteric 9/4 time signature doesn’t stop Nate from forging on effortlessly with a contemporary groove propelled by simple quarter notes on the snare drum. Noble’s electric keyboard mixes with Jaron Lopez’s heavily reverbed guitar as Tim Green’s soprano saxophone plays a theme that takes its time and rotates around just a couple melodic ideas.
But all this is paired with trenchant solos from Green and Noble, explorations that live in the groove but draw on the bop idiom’s harmonic mirth. (Tellingly, Noble switches from electric to acoustic piano halfway through his solo.) The point being, the album has a foot planted in territory marked with R&B’s trappings, but it retains a boppish core. This holds true throughout the rest of the album, as the Jolley Brothers incorporate vocals, strings and even a harp played by their sister, Rashida – who’s currently in Lady Gaga’s touring band.
With Memoirs, the Jolleys join a rapidly growing cast of musicians who are often crudely swept under the jazz awning but have much broader artistic appetites. Robert Glasper, Stefon Harris, Jason Moran and D.C.’s own Marc Cary are some of the many. They all see the validity of hip-hop and R&B, and recognize that those genres will inevitably provide much of the ink that writes future jazz history.
Another such musician is Ben Williams, the Washington native and Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition winner who plays acoustic bass on most of the tracks on Memoirs. Williams contributes a few staggeringly melodic solos, but more importantly he sets out a foundation that’s formidable and self-assured. Williams’ wide, earthy tone is the soil from which the Jolley Brothers flourish.
Between Duke Ellington, Dr. Billy Taylor, Shirley Horn and others, there’s plenty of oft-mentioned jazz history wafting through the streets of D.C. But what about Marvin Gaye and Chuck Brown? (For what it’s worth, even Parliament-Funkadelic’s famous Mothership is reputed to have landed in its final resting place somewhere near Silver Spring, Md.) Clearly, this city has a vibrant tradition to uphold across the spectrum of African-American music. And with Memoirs Between Brothers, the Jolley Brothers are doing a fine job of carrying it on.
by Giovanni Russonello