Joe Farnsworth In What Direction Are You Headed? Smoke Sessions, 2023.
By Jeff Cebulski | ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
I have been listening to music accompanied by the esteemed drummer Joe Farnsworth for over 30 years, especially via a favorite ensemble, One For All. I know he is good, but how good wasn’t clear to me until now.
Farnsworth, who will be leading a band at the Jazz Showcase from May 11th through the 14th, has always been “a drummer’s drummer,” capable of providing stalwart support of most any ensemble.
Generally known for his “old school” pocket behind post-bop performers, Farnsworth’s new album In What Direction Are You Headed? Is a wily departure from his usual fare, involving a new generation of players while keeping a veteran rhythm core at the center, creating a plaiting of generations.
On In What Direction are some of the finest contemporary talents: featured guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, altoist Immanuel Wilkins (whose appearance at last year’s Jazz Festival was woefully undersold), and keyboardist Julius Rodriguez. At the bass helm is Robert Hurst, who has moved forward from his crucial Marsalis experience to become a respected support player.
The album’s title, and title cut, comes from an attempt to bridge those generations, a way for Farnsworth to indicate to his homies that he is not straying far away from his roots but wants to move forward to involve the top tier of current musicians steeped in multi-genre upbringings. Farnsworth first played the tune with the late, sorely-missed, pianist Harold Mabern at the Vanguard. Joe then asked Mabern’s son Michael (who provides an enjoyable conversation with Farnsworth as the liner notes) if he could use the tune on the new album as a way to establish a musical trope.
Rosenwinkel’s presence invigorates Farnsworth and provides a clear subtext to the proceedings: this is not your dad’s music, but we do remember your dad. The world-recognized guitarist gets three compositions here, and his guitar is definitely not representing another version of Grant Green.
And on Mabern’s “In What Direction Are You Headed?”, the bridge is built. Rodriguez opens with a funky Fender Rhodes riff that leads to a brightly-rendered melody from both Rosenwinkel and Wilkins, an arrangement that occurs frequently. As the two meander through the bars, the playing becomes more elastic, fushionesque. Rodriguez gets the first solo while Farnsworth sounds like Buddy Rich during his “trying to be cool in the 60’s” period (not meant to be pejorative). Wilkins lets loose with a postmodern squall before Rosenwinkel steps on the effect box to render a lovely, angular statement.
Farnsworth also has a solo opportunity (one of three in the selections) that builds on his first one, an eye-opening display during selection two, Rosenwinkel’s “Filters.”
Wilkins’ contribution “Composition 4” (placed, of course, fourth on the listing) is the quietest of the songs, showcasing the album’s juxtaposition of sax and guitar. Wilkins has the melodic lead, as Rosenwinkel adds shimmering comp atop Rodriguez’s folky acoustic fills.
Rodriguez’s “Anyone But You” is the bop tune that demonstrates the youths’ ability to travel quickly, with Rosenwinkel especially impressive with his McLaughlin-like display; Wilkins, likewise. Does Farnsworth keep up? Impressively, yes. And Rodriguez is impressive, too. Any questions about how the “new generation” can deal with the “old” are answered here.
The album opener “Terra Nova” and “Safe Corners,” both Rosenwinkel compositions, are reflective tone poems that suggest geographical influences. Both have slightly Latin touches and comparatively are more austere in arrangement while gorgeous as soundscapes.
On “Bobby Low Bags” Farnsworth gives Hurst a chance to shine, and the bassist relishes the moment in bluesland. Meanwhile, Wilkins displays his bop chops, something I wasn’t sure he could pull off. Rosenwinkel, with guitar effect applied, follows through with his rejoinder, while Rodriguez shares his own piano offering before Farnsworth finishes with a short solo. Here, again, sax and guitar coalesce as Hurst completes the tune.
The closer, Donnie Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” is clearly symbolic, one more bridge to join sides. The soulful ballad gets an ornate, upper registered greeting from Wilkins while Rodriguez morphs Philly soul as Rosenwinkel carries forth with an effected solo that replaces Hathaway beautifully. You’d think Wilkins picked up a soprano for this one, but it’s just another way for him to demonstrate his facility, while Hurst carries the song with his own lyrical backup.
We’ve been treated with some great music in 2023 so far, but this album blew me away—unexpected but welcomed, nonetheless. Joe Farnsworth, in excellent form, not only evinces his wide talent but also his wisdom, casting a vision for our jazz future that doesn’t eschew the genre’s blues roots while still advancing. In What Direction Are You Headed? Is both a good question and an essential album for the 21st Century.
Joe Farnsworth, In What Direction Are You Headed? Smoke Sessions, 2023.
Joe Farnsworth, drums
Immanuel Wilkins, alto sax
Kurt Rosenwinkel, guitar
Julius Rodriguez, piano and fender Rhodes
Robert Hurst, bass
About Jeff Cebulski
Jeff Cebulski, who lives in Chicago, is a retired English educator (both secondary and collegiate) and longtime jazz aficionado. His career in jazz includes radio programs at two stations in southeast Wisconsin, an online show on Kennesaw State’s (GA) Owl Radio from 2007 until 2015, and review/feature writing for Chicago Jazz Magazine since 2016, including his column "Jazz With Mr. C". He has interviewed many jazz artists, including Joshua Redman, Charles Lloyd, Dave Holland, John Beasley, and Chris Brubeck, as well as several Chicago-based players. Jeff is a member of the Jazz Journalists Association. Contact Jeff at firstname.lastname@example.org