Jim Beard is the prototype for the modern, twenty-first century musician: He is a composer and arranger adept in classical, jazz, R&B, rock, soul, film music, and fusion idioms; a keyboardist whose fleet fingers combine the best of Joe Zawinul and Herbie Hancock; as evidenced by his astonishing three-decade career as a sideman with every body from Wayne Shorter and Walter Becker, to Me'Shell Ndegeocello, Brecker Brothers, Pat Metheny and Eliane Elias, and as a leader in his own right.
But like most geniuses, Beard's gifts have been hiding in plain sight. Thankfully his quasi-anonymity comes to an end with the release of his stupendous Sunnyside debut Revolutions: a boundary-crossing ten-track masterpiece featuring his friend, the evocative composer/conductor/arranger Vince Mendoza, and award-winning Metropole Orchestra from the Netherlands; one of the world's last radio broadcast ensembles.
It was Mendoza's 2003 collaboration with Beard and Cologne's WDR Big Band on their 2007 Grammy award-winning track "Some Skunk Funk" with the Brecker Brothers that lit the fire for this project, recorded in two sessions in 2005 and 2007, with previously released and new material from Beard, recorded by the legendary engineer Andrew Dudman from Abbey Road Studios. "[It] was a fantastic experience for me and the orchestra seemed to truly enjoy playing the music," Beard writes in the CD liner notes. "I was recording live in the same room as the orchestra, so the pressure was on to play well! No fixing or overdubbing! It reminded me of some of the film score sessions I do in New York where I record in the same room as a 90-piece orchestra. If you screw up, you and 89 other people have to do it again."
The fruits of these sensational sessions are self-evident, complete with outstanding soloists: guitarist Jon Herrington, Argentine percussionist Marcio Doctor, saxophonists Bob Malach and Bill Evans. "Holiday For Pete & Gladys" is the lead-off track, a midtempo, ivory-tickled swinger tha grooves in a Burt Bacharach/Steely Dan/Muscle Shoals mode, contrasted by the martial drum strokes of "Crossing Troll Bridge," the Weather Report-ish "Hope" and the quiet stormed "Diana." "Lost at the Carnival" and "Princess" are equally pulsed by South American samba and Nuyorican salsa. The Strauss-like bounce on "Holodeck Waltz" is no Star Trek illusion, and "In All of Her Finery," also evokes the aura of a neo-classical Aaron Copeland gem. "Parsley Trees" prances with a marimba-motored, Asian-tinged backbeat, while "Trip" is a no-nonsense 4/4 jazz swinger. On all of the tracks Beard's elegant and engaging pianism is economical, as it is engaging, with no a note wasted.
You might safely call Jim Beard jazz's king of the underrated. His wit, wisdom and sure skills as keyboardist, producer and composer have been tapped by the likes of Michael Brecker, Pat Metheny, Wayne Shorter, Mike Stern and John McLaughlin. Beard has been misrepresented (or imcompletely branded) as a "new fusion" musician, and his solo albums from the '90s - rich and witty marvels all - have been ritually overlooked.
All of which brings us to his wondrous Revolutions, a painterly circus of his music in expanded circumstances, with the aid of arranger Vince Mendoza and the Metropole Big Band and Orchestra. Much more than just a Euro side project, the album illustrates how Beard's music expands beautifully in the bigger-better band format, how Beard's and Mendoza's concepts and sense of color mesh, and also offers a retrospective overview of choice tunes from Beard's songbook.
Fine soloing abounds along the way, including Beard's eloquent turns on piano and cameos by saxophonist Bill Evans, trumpeter Bob Malach and guitarist Jon Herrington, but the power of the written (and arranged) note is largely responsible for the wow factor. We get a hint of tricks (and treats) to come in the very first two measures of the album, as Beard sets up "Holiday for Pete & Gladys" with a New Orleans-y solo piano riff - in the wrong key. Beard's writing, sympathetically textured and fashioned in Mendoza's charts, moves from the stuff of "Lost at the Carnival" and "Princess" - both hip, festive and lightly spiced with kitsch - to the Wayne Shorter-tinged lyricism of "In All Her Finery" and the sophisticated triple-meter sway of "Holodeck Waltz."
If a "fusion" ethos is at work, it's all for the aesthetic good, and is approached by Beard with rare degrees of humor and creative subversion. Pop ideas and slyly catchy melodies squirm around the jazz campus grounds, like some jazzier kinfolk of Steely Dan's jazzed-up pop tack, but in the other direction. Let the reappraisal begin.
- Josef Woodard --JazzTimes - Nov. 2009