Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Violinist Sam Bardfeld's 'winner image' challenges itself on 'The Great Enthusiasms'

Rhapsodic, freely questing violin playing out of tempo to open a piece called "Winner Image" typifies the trio disc by Sam Bardfeld called "The Great Enthusiasms" on the Brooklyn Jazz Underground label.
Sam Bardfeld gazes aloft, awaiting the next descent of whimsical irony.

It's revealing insofar as Bardfeld's unaccompanied violin displays the peripatetic pizazz and grit of New York in the 1970s and '80s, an era that the musician recalls in his liner notes for the CD. His mostly original music evokes the challenging environment of that place and time — a world that inspired the rough Rolling Stones song "Shattered" and where the cutting-edge street crime briefly involved fleet bicyclists ripping handbags off the shoulders of female pedestrians by the straps.

"Winner Image" presents Bardfeld as rhapsodic but faux-tentative, a player whose elaborations seem to range from mere noodling to a kind of punk coloratura. Drummer Michael Sarin lays down a taciturn cymbal pattern, which brings in the borderline bipolar playing of Kris Davis on piano. He digs in obsessively in some places, meanders reflectively in others. The music really grabs your attention toward the end of his solo, setting up the leaders' re-entry nicely.

The disc opens with "Fails While Daring Greatly," a phrase taken from a speech by Theodore Roosevelt appropriated with unintentional irony by his paranoid successor Richard M. Nixon in his resignation speech. Bardfeld finds the quotation "full of pathos and funny." Apart from remarking, editor-like,  that the descriptive language on either side of "and" should be transposed, I am inclined to conclude that Bardfeld's sense of humor leans too much toward offhand yet dogged irony.

The smoothly working trio strikes its ironic poses within a narrow range of tempo, which is a kind of lumbering common-time swing that accommodates the composer's disjunct melodic lines. It also spotlights the tendency of Davis and Bardfeld to talk to themselves in their solos, like the New York City street people the leader probably likewise finds "full of pathos and funny." That's a feature as well of the title piece (also derived from that Roosevelt/Nison paragraph).

The variety the trio finds within the music's narrow emotional framework and straitjacket pacing is remarkable. There is some perky textural contrast from time to time, as in the pizzicato chords behind the showcased piano  in "The 37th Time I Have Spoken."

A couple of adaptations of notable songs from the era's popular music are given idiosyncratic treatments: "Because the Night" by Bruce Springsteen (with whom Bardfeld has performed often) and Patti Smith and "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)"  by The Band. The latter performance swings more than usual as it almost settles down out of the trio's normal eccentricity into the bluesy/country groove of the venerated Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson et al.

"The Great Enthusiasms" is a disc characterized by adept performances, well-knit and clearly recorded, of music whose fey irony occasionally rankles and bores. You might say it's also funny and full of pathos.