In many ways playing music is like any other human interaction. There is a comfort in working with people with whom you have had a long-term relationship. Things get done smoothly when you know each other well and share common goals. At the same time there is an excitement that comes from something new. A fresh perspective from meeting and getting to know someone different. For jazz musicians and listeners these two extremes often tend to create the most satisfying musical ensembles. The groups that have played together for years and have a certain“telepathy” from knowing each other so well. Whereas the ones that have just met can enjoy the creative stimulation and spark that comes from being exposed to new personalities, ideas and approaches. Generally these two situations are mutually exclusive. Either you have known the other person or people for years or you’ve just met, not both.
This quartet is an interesting example of a rare exception. On one hand this is a band of old friends. The two of us have played together for many years. We have known Joel and Eliot for years as well but Joel and Eliot had never met previously. As a band we had never played together before this recording, so in many ways it felt like meeting a new group. This created a perfect combination. The comfort of playing with old friends coupled with the excitement of playing in a totally new band. We were able to enjoy the feeling of confidence that comes with playing with people you know and trust, while still having that excitement of a new relationship.
Of course none of this is particularly important to the listener unless there is the added value of the music being truly interesting and creative. We’ll leave you to make your own judgment on our work. But from our point of view this quartet has some of the most creative and empathetic players we’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. Joel Frahm is a truly unique and compelling musical voice. His sense of melody, his harmonic concept and his ensemble interaction are all second to none. We have both been fans of Eliot Zigmund’s playing since his debut on the world stage in the 1970’s with the Bill Evans trio. His subtlety and rhythmic interplay is unparalleled. But he is also one of a small group of drummers who can create a feeling of momentum in a band that can elevate the entire musical statement to a new level.
The music chosen for this recording includes original works as well as some of our favorite standards and compositions from the jazz canon. Each tune is so different that as a whole the album really reflects the diversity of our musical experiences. It’s a recording like no other that we have made as far as the spectrum of music and the interplay within the group. One tune was actually collaboratively composed on the date. Many of the arrangements, while originally conceived by the two of us, took on a whole new life with Joel and Eliot’s input.
To make music with this band is a joy. To make a recording with this band is an honor. We are grateful for all the creativity, musical artistry and friendship that these musicians brought to this project and we hope that you enjoy the musical journey within this recording.
— Tom Dempsey and Tim Ferguson
Sometimes you do get more than you paid for. Tom Dempsey and Tim Ferguson had been set to play as a duo at the latest “Jazz one2one Series” show at Athens Cultural Center – no big whoop, since the guitarist and bassist have been working that format on-and-off for the last 25 years. However, the Greene County Council on the Arts was nice enough to throw a little more money Thom Bellino’s way, so the Planet Arts impresario was able to bring in reedman Joel Frahm and drummer Eliot Zigmund, the other half of Dempsey and Ferguson’s latest disc “Beautiful Friendship.”
Who says government can’t create jobs?
What’s more, the initial shipment of “Friendship” discs had arrived that afternoon (“The ink’s still drying on them,” Bellino told us in his introduction to the pre-show Q&A), so the evening became an impromptu drop party. While Bellino did move some product by the end of the night, the late-arriving crowd came in looking for what one2one shows usually provide: A wide-ranging, informative and (usually) funny discussion of jazz in general and the players’ experience in particular. And the people who made cracks on Dempsey’s Facebook page about the remoteness of the gig (“The L Train doesn’t go up there,” one wag typed) missed out big time!
The quartet’s experience goes back farther than Dempsey and Ferguson’s first ventures as a performing unit: Ferguson met Zigmund at New Jersey’s William Paterson University, where Zigmund was on the faculty at the time; at the same time, both Dempsey and Frahm were enrolled down the Jersey Turnpike at Rutgers. It was Six Degrees of Separation applied to jazz: “I know a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy… oh, you know that guy?”
While all four players have worked with each other in various combinations since college, “Beautiful Friendship” marks the first time they’ve performed as a unit. And while Dempsey and Ferguson are more than comfortable playing duo, there are definite drawbacks, as the pair discovered when they recorded their first duo date and found the editing and mixing was a lot harder than the actual recording. “What you don’t get in a duo that you get from a larger band are places to hide,” Dempsey freely admitted. “In a duo recording, you’re completely exposed.”
Ferguson added that a larger group does offer more colors to work with. “When the time changes with a drummer like Eliot, and the melody changes with a player like Joel… it’s magic!”
And then we got to see that magic.
They opened the musical portion of the program the same way they open “Friendship”: With a swirling take on Randy Weston’s “Little Niles.” Ferguson laid down the opening figure, which Zigmund began to embroider almost immediately, and then Dempsey and Frahm launched the melody, commuting from unison to harmony and back again at the drop of a hat. From there, Frahm took hold of the piece while Dempsey comped expertly. Ferguson literally bobbed and weaved as he laid down his fat, dancing foundation; contrariwise, only Zigmund’s hands seemed to move as he sat behind his kit, eyes closed, watching the music unfold inside his eyelids.
Anybody who saw Frahm’s past Nippertown appearances backing Samuel Torres and Linda Oh are familiar with the rich, glowing tone that flows out of Frahm’s tenor sax. Frahm draws you into his space with warm, welcoming progressions that grow in complexity but don’t leave you behind or (even worse) beat you about the head and shoulders with how marvelously byzantine they are. He smoked us into a smiling daze on Vernon Duke’s “Autumn in New York,” but when he pushed the outside of the envelope on “It’s True” (the group’s busting work-up of the changes on “There is No Greater Love”) and Thad Jones’ “50-21,” you saw where Frahm was going because he’d brought you with him every step of the way.
Dempsey's chords tell just as detailed a story as his progressions. It’s clean, it’s sharp, and it makes you want to outlaw effects boxes that do anything other than pump up the volume. Dempsey’s work on “Autumn” and the Donald Kahn/Stanley Styne tune that is the title track of “Friendship” was straight out of the Old School that graduated Wes Montgomery and Pat Martino, and he applied that same galvanizing style to his originals “Focus Pocus” and “Ted’s Groove” – the latter tune written for the late jazz guitarist Ted Dunbar.
While Dempsey and Frahm were rocking the melodies, Ferguson and Zigmund were building a floor as ornate as some of the 19th-century decorative items on display in ACC’s main gallery. Ferguson has an undeniable energy that propels him in solo and support, and showed a peerless sense of lyric during solos on “50″ and “Autumn.” Zigmund’s resume includes a stint with a semi-important pianist named Bill Evans, so you expected him to keep it elegant, which he surely did. But when he got to go big, as he did during trade-offs with the front line on “Niles,” he was more than up to the challenge, and his Second Line rhythm on Ferguson’s glorious “Cakewalk” was – like the piece itself – just too much fun!
“Beautiful Friendship” offers bright jazz that’s tight as a drum and full of the life that too many people think has vanished from the genre. That said, it was a real treat to see this music unfold before us in an intimate setting like ACC, and the conversation that preceded it will make the space between now and one2one’s reappearance in the fall seem like a long, long time.
Review by J Hunter