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By Dan Ouellette, DownBeat, Stereophile, author of the biography, Ron Carter: Finding the Right Notes (ArtistShare)
Smudgy dark times indeed. Sub-primes defaulting with downward spiraling regularity; credit card bankers changing the rules overnight. Unemployment rising; bailouts doled out to the fat cats. Health care costs escalating; health insurance coverage waning. The only silver lining within these turbulent, contusive storm clouds is the new president who’s committed to undoing the wrong turns of the past eight years and advocating change—despite rising political opposition.
Within that unpredictable social climate of despair-meets-hope, keyboardist-composer-arranger John Beasley arrives with Positootly, a 10-tune gem of musical positivity, teeming with sweet straight-up swing, finger-licking grooves channeling New Orleans, new visions of bossa nova (Jobim) and nuevo tango (Piazzolla), and hushed lyricism.
According to urban lexicon, “positootly” is defined as “absolutely positive,” which is the spirit that fuels Beasley’s latest—his ninth CD overall and second for the Los Angeles-based Resonance Records.
Voicing hope has always been one of music’s most dynamic roles. Trace back to 1944, in the murky hours of World War II, when lyricist Johnny Mercer and composer Harold Arlen teamed up to pen “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” (and, they add in the chorus, “E-lim-i-nate the negative, and latch on to the affirmative”) for the Bing Crosby/Betty Hutton film Here Comes the Waves. And then in 1988, when Bobby McFerrin hit the top of the charts with the sing-songy a cappella ditty, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”—the phrase borrowed from spiritual guru Meher Baba.
But Beasley’s Positootly commands a more subtle and deeper story than merely engaging in positive-thinking therapy. He smiles incisively, with artistic class and jazz panache. The native of Shreveport, La., who’s now bicoastal (his longtime residency in Los Angeles and an apartment in New York’s West Village), brings to the “positootly” proceedings his talents as an inventive pianist/keyboardist, imaginative composer, creative interpreter, inspired arranger and assured bandleader
“I chose the title because all of the music has a positive feel,” says Beasley. “It’s not dark. The way the chord progressions move on the title song itself makes for forward motion.” Beasley emphatically didn’t want to call the album Positively. While he was working on the music, it reminded him of home, where Positootly fits. A major source of inspiration: “I found an old picture of a couple dancing at a social club called Club Desire in the Ninth Ward in New Orleans,” he says. “That’s how the songs started taking on the direction of my Louisiana roots.”
Beasley’s band is stellar. Drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts returns with a boom (he starred on the leader’s last album Letter to Herbie dedicated to fellow pianist Herbie Hancock—Beasley says, “Tain is so intense, you can see him listening”), and bassist James Genus completes the deep rhythmic pocket. Guests include trumpeter Bryan Lynch (“We have history together,” says the leader), tenor/soprano saxist Bennie Maupin (even though Beasley has known him for more than 20 years and has shared the stage with him often, this marks their first recording date together) and percussionist Muyungo Jackson (again, an old friend who taught Beasley when he was young “how to play in the pocket” and toured with the young keyboardist in Miles Davis’s band in the late ‘80s— documented on the trumpeter’s posthumously released album, Live Around the World)
For starters, Beasley reinterprets his song “Cado Bayou” from his first album, Cauldron, dancing with song-like soul on the piano. “It’s nostalgic,” he says. “I think back to those days in the bayou fishing and looking out for water moccasins. I think back to those days, and it’s comforting. My first version had a Meters vibe—a second-line groove that had backbeat and was hip-hoppy. This time I went for the sound of Miles mixed with Blakey.
After the spirited “Positootly” that features the charged conversational interplay between Beasley and Watts, the leader puts a totally different spin on Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Dindi,” reharmonizing it and delivering it in 5/4 time. “I didn’t want to do a bossa nova,” he says. “I wanted it to swing. I took this beautiful, simple melody and transposed it into almost another tune, with lots of harmony in the tradition of Bill Evans.” Beasley also tips his hat to Miles: “He used to tell me not to use my left hand when I soloed. When you have a good rhythm section, leave room for them to play and react. I’m finally at a place where I’m not cramming or rushing. I’m not in a hurry.”
The power-driven “Black Thunder” with its snaky melody pays homage to Elvin Jones. “I kept hearing this tune in my head, then I started to hear this drum style that was totally Elvin,” Beasley says. “The song does have a lot of thunder, which was Elvin’s nickname. He changed music. And Tain is volcanic on this, as it had to be.” Another rhythmically charged tune follows, “Shatita Boom Boom.” It’s an upbeat, grooving number that again played itself out in Beasley’s head. “It’s got that New Orleans feel,” he says. “I can’t wait to play this for a crowd, to get people snapping their fingers and chanting.
Beasley covers a lot of territory in the remaining two covers: “Tanquedia 3” by Astor Piazzolla and “So Tired” by Bobby Timmons. As for the latter, Beasley notes that Timmons was his first piano hero, thanks to his father turning him on to his music at a time when the aspiring musician was steeped in the music of the day (Blood Sweat & Tears, Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King, the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band). “Bobby’s music was so accessible,” he says. “It was a great crossover to jazz for me. This is one of the first songs I fell in love with. I’ve done an acid jazz-rap version of it on MySpace, but I wanted to see what the trio could do with it. Instead of piano, I played a Rhodes, we found a groove and just kept playing it.
As for the former, Beasley was schooled in nuevo tango by Kip Hanrahan, whose American Clave record label produced some of the Argentine bandoneón master’s best albums, including 1986’s Tango: Zero Hour, which included “Tanquedia 3.” Playing acoustic piano and Rhodes, Beasley fuses tango with jazz: “I’ve always been interested in doing that. I love Astor’s rush and cutting off, the acceleration and the passion. I transcribed the piece and as a group we played it and used the structure of the tune to blow on.” The “experiment with a jazz group” climaxes dramatically with an exciting tempo rush at the end
Beasley’s artful compositions are showcased on the second half of the album. The lyrical “Elle” is a simple, bluesy, gospel-like tune written for his wife, with Maupin contributing sweet and soulful soprano saxophone lines. And “Eight Winds” is a spirited full-band flight infused with “positootly” vigor. It’s based on the writings of 12th century Japanese Buddhist monk and reformer Nichiren Daishonin, who wrote: “Worthy persons deserve to be called so because they are not carried away by the eight winds: prosperity, decline, disgrace, honor, praise, censure, suffering and pleasure. They are neither elated by prosperity nor grieved by decline. The heavenly gods will surely protect one who is unbending before the eight winds.
Beasley comments, “Suffer what you suffer, and enjoy what you enjoy. Seems like a good lesson to me.
The Positootly coda-like finale, “Hope, Arkansas,” features Beasley offering a sublime solo piano meditation on hope, literally and figuratively. It makes for the perfect CD closer
Beasley’s mother was born in the small, backwater town of Hope, Arkansas (also the birthplace of President Bill Clinton). He took her there last fall to a reunion. Before going, though, he was in Shreveport. “I was very much into Barack Obama, and I was proudly wearing an Obama pin,” he says. “I caught a lot of grief about this in Shreveport, but once I got to Hope, it was all different. There were lots of Obama signs in the yards. And black, Hispanic and white people were working together.
Beasley says the experience was both eye-opening and heartening. In the true spirit of “positootly,” he wrote the tune. “There is a lot of hope for the future,” he says. “I saw it in Hope, Arkansas. You can waste a lot of time being bitter about the way life has turned, but that’s not moving forward in a positive direction.”
----- Reviews ----
John is truly an amazing pianist, imaginative composer, creative improviser and arranger. And with Positootly he created an album that people will look back as one of the first Jazz classic albums of the 21th century. Read more
AllMusic – 4 ½ stars
This recording is his finest effort, and stands proudly alongside his previous recording, a fine tribute to Herbie Hancock. Read more
LA Weekly – 1/6/11
JazzTimes – 11/09
Santa Monica Daily Press
SECRETS FROM THE JAZZ GHETTO
Latin Jazz Network
All About Jazz
LA Weekly – 9/26/09
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