Echoes of Harlem

by Mark Isaacs

Artist/s: Mat Jodrell with Frank Kimbrough, Jay Anderson & Lewis Nash
Label: Nicholas Records
Reviewed by Mark Isaacs

Mat Jodrell gave his new album the title Echoes of Harlem without being guilty of a shred of what might otherwise perhaps have been a kind of appropriative hubris. After all, Mat saw fit to make his home in that signal Manhattan neighbourhood for five years, and Duke Ellington’s composition of that name begins the major artistic statement that comprises this album. Mat Jodrell describes Harlem in his liner notes as “addictive, relentless, unabashed, and welcoming” and these would all serve as apt descriptors for the music he has given us here.

Mat is an Australian jazz trumpeter, hailing from Perth and still in his thirties, who made a significant splash during his 8 years in New York City. He was appointed as lecturer at the Julliard School of Music, and he played with a roll call of major American jazz talents. He now lectures at the James Morrison Academy of Music in Mount Gambier, South Australia.

I’ve tilted my awareness toward the artform of jazz for half a century now, and moved within its circles. There’s one particular change that I notice in looking over that period which I think is worth remarking upon in the context of this recording.

So often, now – but, rarely then – there is an immersion in, and celebration of, the tradition as a whole, rather than the default recruitment of an aspiring musician to the cutting edge of the artform’s vogue stylistic point of evolution.

In 1968 I was hearing in the jazz of the day – by say Miles Davis or Bill Evans – an artistic life force undergoing its latest transmutation right there in that historical moment. And so would not any musician sign up to play under the sway of an organism that was then vibrating so monumentally in the air? And in 1978 it was Weather Report or the seminal works of Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett. I was playing by then, and I and my compatriots wanted to play like that. Rarely did we look back.

Things have changed, and I celebrate the new classicism in jazz. Without there being any clearly defined single “cutting edge” any more, it is natural that many young jazz musicians curate a broad sweep of the artform with real authority, just as their classical colleagues do. The more recent past can sound corny until some extra distance is had. We tended not to listen to Louis Armstrong in 1978.

And so Mat curates – brings into the now – many echoes of the sound of the great Louis Armstrong and Cootie Williams, amongst others (and not eschewing more modern threads). A certain kind of jazz diehard might protest “But we already have the Armstrong records!”. This always seems to me to be a strange manifestation of the cult of personality harnessed to an exaggerated and stubborn obeisance to the second-hand documents that comprise historical recordings. The music of a genius like Louis Armstrong transcends the man himself: its evocation warrants being heard pummelling right through the bones and breath of today’s living, pulsing human beings. Were there to be recordings of Chopin playing his music, should none of we pianists today play his gems? Jazz rhetoric needs to grow up on just this kind of point.

The most striking thing about Mat’s playing is its utter authenticity in respect of that imbued historical jazz tradition (and how he has assimilated it; what authority!) as well as the acute emotional range of what he has in store for us. And so it swings, it shuffles and it swaggers as hard as it gets, yet at next turn melts us into puddles with its shameless and heartfelt tenderness, such as on his exquisite composition For My Folks. Mat is a grown up.

Speaking of authenticity and authority – surely themselves the key touchstones of this album – recording in New York with the band of American heroes he has assembled here is like essaying Mozart with the Vienna Philharmonic.

In the piano of Frank Kimbrough, the double bass of Jay Anderson and the drums of Lewis Nash we find consummate artistry at every turn, harnessed to that same kind of wide stylistic perspicacity. It can be done in other cities, but here you do feel the soil under foot. There is deep history within this music that is rekindled from so much of the spectrum of jazz’s oeuvre, but just as a classical player’s inspired curatorial choices in a historically-inclined recital may make for an original statement when taken as a whole, here the resulting brew of influences is indeed singular. And so tumble down the artificial, flimsy and transparent walls seemingly erected by blinkered rhetoricians between artistic creation, and re-creation. Celebrate that.

This article was first published here.