When I attended Berklee College of Music in the 80s, students engaged in an adolescent turf war, a sort of whimpified version of West Side Story sans knives or anything else involving danger. Instead of the Sharks and the Jets, it was the Rockheads and the Jazzheads, the former perceived as buffoons by the latter, and the latter perceived as smug elitists by the former. I was somewhere in the middle, having been raised on rock and roll though very open to learning about jazz, but the jazz tradition at Berklee made it hard not to side with my rock brethren. So smug were the Jazzheads that they gleefully rode the coattails of Wynton Marsalis’s criticism of his brother Branford for his joining Sting’s band, and they were downright incredulous at how Sting ruined his otherwise legitimate song “Englishman In New York” with a rock beat breakdown (right after a swing section, which the Jazzheads natural approved of).
I may still be a rock guy at heart, but my favorite musical discovery of 2016 came not from one of the dozen rock stations of Chicago but from the jazz frequencies of 90.9 WDCB. While driving in my car, I heard a piano jazz trio playing an odd-metered song with a stellar melody backed by – of all things – a string quartet. It blew me away. I rushed home, went on-line to check the name of the song – “Porcupine Dreams” – and purchased the Danny Green Trio album, Altered Narratives. It’s a gem.
Altered Narratives showcases a wide spectrum of jazz styles, and with Green’s flair for odd rhythms and the addition of strings on a handful of tunes, the album offers a listening experience that’s far more interesting, varied and fulfilling than any other jazz album I’ve heard in a long, long time. The addition of strings is a stroke of genius as it completely changes the musical palate. As much as I love the sound of a traditional piano-bass-drums combo, the strings fill out the sound when the band plays percussively, and offers accents at other times, each unit balancing the other to lift the song to an entirely new level.
Some songs stand out in a big way. After a few more traditional pieces to open the album (still original and still excellent), the trio dives into the haunting “October Ballad,” a tune in three-four whose tensions and changing tonal center keep the song moving forward and avoid getting too settled. In addition to his piano chops, Green’s gift is melody, and this song is exhibit A.
After a solid Latin-based “6 A.M.” the band switches gears yet again with “Second Chance,” opening as a sort of romantic piano piece with the first string accompaniment on the album and reminiscent of some of the cinematic themes of Ennio Morricone. It’s a lovely piece that seemingly concludes, pauses, and then begins again with the full band in a different key and a different time signature, now with the reprised melody offering a compelling 4 on 3 motif that gives the piece its momentum. The next tune, “Katabasis” also sounds cinematic, and its 12/8 rhythm would feel right at home in a tension filled montage of a mystery film. Once again, the feel changes a third of the way through the song, becoming a more staccato piece and giving the song a welcome lift.
Next on the CD is the piece that started it all for me, the wonderful “Porcupine Dreams,” offering another haunting melody with strings punctuating the 7/8 rhythm before the band breaks with a frantic conclusion that alternates between 7/8 and 4/4 and keeps the listener desperate to find the down beat, like a thrill rider’s anticipation of the next stomach-churning drop.
The short piano solo “Benji’s Song” once again stresses Green’s mastery of melody, and the chromatic changes would fit right in with a Randy Newman instrumental album.
Here ends the more experimental side of the album, with the last three songs completing things on a more traditional jazz-trio note, though “Friday At the Thursday Club” offers yet again some very interesting chord changes beneath a melody whose accents are unfamiliar in a 6/8 time signature (a 4 on 3 is once again employed – wonderful!). But for me, tracks 3-8 are among the best six I’ve ever heard on a jazz recording. If the bookends are a bit more on the traditional side, they’re still excellent.
Bassist Justin Grinnell and drummer Julien Cantelm hold down the rhythm fort nicely, particularly in the odd-metered moments. If there’s one criticism I’d make of the album, it’s the inclusion of so many bass solos. I suspect jazz purists will crucify me for saying so, but I never understood the allure of the bass solo. To me it’s an instrument that should stay in its supporting role and allow other instruments to handle the highlights.
Whatever. The Danny Green trio is a stunning group that’s willing to push the boundaries and explore interesting territory. That may be what’s expected of all jazz musicians, but this is a band that is equal to the task.