For some of the most committed artists, music is a pursuit of transcendence, and thus an end to itself. But for composer/pianist Noah Baerman, that pursuit is not only transcendence, but a means to societal and humanistic advancement. Ripples, his upcoming Lemel Music release, is a stirring reflection upon some of the important issues that he confronts as an artist, educator, father and humanitarian.
Ripples is the first release produced in conjunction with Resonant Motion, Inc. (RMI), a not-for-profit organization founded in 2012 by Baerman and some equally committed individuals. Viewing music as a healing force and artistic expression as a means to both expand awareness and promote action, RMI seeks to inspire, not preach; to uplift, not depress. Ripples is a perfect example of that outlook. Soulfulness and musicality are front and center on this remarkable album, Noah's ninth as a leader.
"To me, 'soul' can have multiple definitions - a trait of music rooted in the African-American continuum, a quality of genuine, uninhibited emotion, or basic human depth and goodness," says Baerman. "I strive to make every note I play or compose soulful by all of these definitions."
The music is presented by two distinct ensembles. The Jazz Samaritan Alliance, comprised of Baerman, vibraphonist Chris Dingman, saxophonists Jimmy Greene and Kris Allen, and drummer Johnathan Blake, was formed with similar goals as those of RMI. They perform on three pieces here joined by special guests Linda Oh on bass for two tracks, and Kenny Barron on piano for one tune.
Four other pieces feature Baerman's trio of 10 years - with bassist Henry Lugo and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza - augmented by a chamber ensemble of cellist Dave Eggar, violinists Meg Okura and Zach Brock, Erica Von Kleist on flutes and Benjamin Fingland on clarinet. They are also joined by a vocal choir of Claire Randall, Garth Taylor, Jessica Best and Erica Bryan on the opening track, "Time is Now" - a celebratory call-to-action. Fittingly the four vocalists who center this energetic and inspirational piece are all under 25, exhorting their peers to stand up and speak out for their future.
The chamber pieces all celebrate courageous ongoing battles against adversity and the power of the human spirit to overcome the challenges that are a fundamental part of life. "The Outer Circle" (dedicated to cancer survivor Karen Walson) is a beautiful ballad with a delightfully suspended structure, featuring a haunting cello solo by Eggar and a tender, melodic piano solo floating on a warm mist of swirling strings. This piece is part of a multi-media tribute called "Survivor Stories," the brainchild of photographer Carla Ten Eyck, and an RMI project in development.
Baerman previously recorded "The Healer" in a trio with Ron Carter and Ben Riley, expressing his ongoing struggles with the connective tissue disorder Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS). In the octet setting, the lovely melody, Baerman's lyrical but rhythmically insistent solo, and the trio's near-telepathic interplay are illuminated by the chamber ensemble like vivid stage lighting on a company of dancers.
The final chamber piece concludes the album - "Ripples" (for Margie) is a stunning paean to Baerman's aunt, Margie Pozefsky, who passed in 2012. Opening with a brief statement of filigree beauty, it becomes a rollicking, jubilant celebration of a life marked by continuous acts of kindness, creating a ripple effect of positive human experience. Noah's explosive McCoy Tyner-esque solo, brilliant ensemble composing, and highly emotional playing by the entire ensemble bring the piece - and the album - to a dramatic finale.
Three short preludes to the final piece are placed effectively among the earlier tracks. Immediately preceding is "Ripple: L'Amour Gagne (Love Wins)," a gorgeous hymnal chant by the choir a cappella, featuring Claire Randall's haunting solo voice. "Ripple: Persistence" is a duet for Baerman and alto saxophonist Allen. A sparkling pas de deux, they play off each other in powerful empathy and rapport, feeding and prodding each other on this smoldering item. "Ripple: Brotherhood" features Baerman on organ, with Greene on soprano and Blake's drums. Highly evocative, a bit reminiscent of early Weather Report, richly textured organ and shimmering cymbals surround the crying soprano.
Dingman's crystalline unaccompanied solo opens "Motherless," the first of three Jazz Samaritan performances. Adapting the melodic line of the spiritual, "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," and buoyed by Baerman's gospel-ish organ, this extended piece moves between plaintive yearning, soulful grooving and boisterous swinging. Allen's passionate, unaccompanied alto plea introduces Greene's urgent, blistering tenor solo. And Baerman explores the hard bop and beyond organ vernacular forged by Don Patterson and Larry Young, culminating in his heartfelt and dulcet singing of the original spiritual. Reflecting Baerman's deep devotion to the cause of foster care and adoption (Baerman and his wife Kate Ten Eyck - the creator of the album's cover painting - are the adoptive parents of three grown children), "Motherless" depicts the issue with disarming emotional directness.
Another perspective on the same issue is at the core of "Lester," a story with an unfortunately tragic conclusion. But Baerman has created a highly emotional, stimulating and hope-filled tribute. "Lester" is a warmly textured, funkily-syncopated piece built on nasty suspended rhythms. Greene takes a fierce, gutty tenor solo, while guest and NEA Jazz Master Kenny Barron delivers the kind of vividly elegant solo that has made him a legend while stoking the piece throughout with driving block chords. Noah's organ provides an exciting, dervish-like pastiche and solos to a scintillating climax.
"Peeling the Onion," a multi-layered, ever-evolving composition in the soul jazz style is driven by Linda Oh's deeply grooved bass and features a Bobby Hutcherson-tinged vibes solo by Dingman and an edgy turn on slide guitar by Baerman. This piece is dedicated to Kate's aunt Dottie Ten Eyck, who is overcoming the adversity of incurable lung cancer by continuing her never-ending journey of love and self-reflection - one layer at a time.
Regardless of the inspiration and intent behind all of these original compositions, the results are precisely what an artist of Baerman's focus and intent seeks - profundity and transcendence. The music is dynamic, telling enthralling stories and in a most aesthetic and compelling manner.
"I feel a responsibility to use my music in service of the issues that matter to me, while those issues add an important layer of substance to the music itself. At this point I scarcely know how to separate my art from my commitment to love, understanding and healing," concludes Baerman.
Upcoming Noah Baerman Tour Dates:
* March 13 / Jazz Gallery / New York, NY
** March 28 / Benefit Concert, First Congregational Church / Bristol, RI
** March 29 / The Side Door Jazz Club / Old Lyme, CT
*** March 30 / The Lily Pad (duo) / Cambridge, MA
April 10 / Rutgers University (guest lecture) / New Brunswick, NJ
** April 10 / Settlement Music School (performance/clinic) / Philadelphia, PA
** April 11 / Columbia Heights Concert Series (Private House Concert) / Washington, DC
** April 12 / Germano's Cabaret / Baltimore, MA
*** April 26 / Flushing Town Hall (feat. Victor Lewis) / Flushing, Queens, NY
* May 9 / Firehouse 12 / New Haven, CT
* - Jazz Samaritan Alliance w/ Jimmy Greene,
Kris Allen, Chris Dingman, Johnathan Blake
** - Noah Baerman Trio w/ Henry Lugo, Vinnie Sperrazza
*** - Noah Baerman with Amanda Monaco