I took a chance on Jacky Terrasson’s trio at the Jazz Standard the other night and I haven’t stopped smiling since. I don’t always take such chances at the City’s higher-end jazz clubs, forty-plus dollars (between the music charge, “tax,” drinks and tip) being a lot to pay for potential disappointment. But something told me to take a chance on Jacky. Maybe it was the fact that I’d be leaving New York a few days later to visit family for a month; that always puts me in the mood for one last live-music fix. Terrasson’s was the name that loomed largest in the assortment of guides and internet bookmarks I use to keep tabs on the local music scene, this though I knew him only from a single recording with Cassandra Wilson, called Rendezvous.
So I listened to the available samples from his most recent album, Push. What I heard (and granted, it wasn’t much) made me nervous. Push has that contemporary mainstream jazz feel that rubs me all the wrong ways: melodious to a fault, hyperconscious about making nifty harmonic turns, glossy and flat and just a little dull. It’s sort of a thinking man’s smooth jazz, a jazz without corners. I suppose I could blame Pat Metheny for this, but that would be rude, particularly after Question and Answer had so recently reminded me of what a great player Metheny is when he lets his hair down.
I thumbed my nose at Push and went anyway.
If there’s a watchword for the Terrasson set I saw, it would have to be communication. There was a freshness and openness about the playing that really moved me, and that only happens when the players are really speaking with one another. Sometimes the success of a jazz shows rests on how much one or another soloist is able to impress you, and if he misses the mark, well, there’s always the next solo, or the guy with the other horn. In most bands, too, there’s either an implicit or explicit hierarchy, and even if we imagine that hierarchy rotates according to which soloist is in the spotlight, some version of the hierarchy remains from one moment to the next. But Terrasson’s trio was very much engaged in a dialogue from the moment the players took up their instruments, and it was so open and obvious a dialogue that the listener, the audience, couldn’t help but feel invited to participate. This constant contact between band members was underscored by shouts and calls and a lot of eye contact. Again, in many jazz bands (and for that matter, chamber ensembles) the musicians furtively eye each other for the next cue from whomever is equivalent of first fiddle. But the cues in this band seemed to emanate from all points. It was a participatory aesthetic, and I think the great sense of joy in the music and performance arose from this.
For example: often when musicians are trading eights or fours they end up playing “over” each other. The sense is that the soloist hasn’t quite finished his or her musical thought, and so treads into the second soloist’s space (usually the drummer’s) with a guilty air. The phrase will conclude at diminished volume, or simply trail off. This is participatory, I suppose, but in the sort of private-ownership way where everyone owns their appropriate share. With Terrasson’s trio, however, there were several instances of Jacky and drummer Jamire Williams “trading,” but each continuing to play with the other in a way that supported or promoted the current musical idea. I didn’t get the sense, that is, that these players were competing with each other, so often regarded as the motive force of the music. Instead, I got a sense of musicians working collectively toward some greater goal … and enjoying themselves immensely in doing so.
I don’t mean this to sound like a paean to authenticity. Terrasson is quite the showman; he does the sorts of flashy things with his hands I associate with early videos of Duke Ellington, and which Ellington himself (if I remember correctly) adapted from the great stride pianists. Terrasson has been compared with Monk, and one can hear and see why in performance—hear it in the fractured and complex rhythms, see it in the swaying and dancing and standing at the keyboard. He’s at home in both a pop and more experimental milieu, and alternates swiftly and randomly between them, or collapses one into the other. Nor is he afraid to play dirty with the keyboard, throwing in an elbow here and there, or reaching out to take hold of the instrument’s guts. He’ll collapse genres just as easily, making a choir piece out of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” then swing the melody in octaves to give it a Latin feel, bring it to a pitch and ease it back to near-silence, all without losing the groove. (Apparently, Terrasson’s version also incorporates “Body and Soul,” at least on the record, but I didn’t recognize it.) In fact, all the tunes that evening had this quirky, blended feel, maybe best exemplified by the last number, which superimposed the bass line from Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon” with the melody from a standard I couldn’t place. All told, it wasn’t so much daring (the word most often associated with showmen) as play. Daring is the wire-walker who takes a risk the audience marvels at. Play is much less outwardly directed, and even though it demands a similarly great assertion of ego, it is more careless. There are no risks properly understood, because there is nothing at stake. That he can do this and yet remain utterly conscious of his audience is Terrasson’s great gift. And it is his great gift as a “leader” that he enables, even encourages, his bandmates to do the same.
The blending of cultures so much in evidence in Jacky’s music is evident in his features as well. He looks younger than his forty-four years, too. Terrasson’s lantern-jawed face radiates a boyish charm. Retains a boyish charm? Yeesh, forget it. Only in moments of intense concentration do lines appear around his eyes, and the flesh around his mouth sags, and one is reminded that he is not so young as he looks … or sounds. But then maybe it’s his band that keeps young: the sum of their ages might be less than Jacky’s. I was shocked when they first appeared, bassist Ben Williams with his dreads tied up in a bandanna, his surnamesake sporting a quasi-mohawk and hipster glasses. I dug their ties, too. Jacky’s was skinny lavender against a dressy blue shirt. (Toward the beginning of the set he had to keep rolling his shirt sleeves up over his elbows—all that dancing—while drummer Jamire had to keep pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose.) Ben wore a huge tie hung loosely around his neck and down the front of a baggy, un-tucked-in shirt. I liked Jamire’s best: it was tucked into his breast pocket; you could just see it sneaking out over the top.
Several years ago I went to see Ron Carter’s quartet at one of those free sets they used to have on Friday nights at the Rose Space Center (of the American Museum of Natural History). During a break, Carter commented in his urbane, nasal drawl on the responsibilities of a bandleader. There were three, but I only clearly remember one: to pick the band’s ties. That’s maybe the easiest way for me to make my point about Terrasson’s trio: I can’t imagine he picked those ties. Everyone seems to wear whatever the hell they want, but somehow they all match.