Why Not Let Go?

Photo by Debra DiPaolo

JAMES CARNEY, A MORTAL WHO plays up-to-the-minute jazz piano in Los Angeles, makes one consider the nature of media gods: Either they bestride the world, inspiring awe and terror, or they lie in the mud with their noses bashed off. During the cycles of mud, such as the one we're in now, art such as Carney's continues; it's even especially vital then, because once we're out of the idols' shadows we can see each other more clearly, and grow.

Carney is a provider of essential services. Not wealthy, not famous, just a master practitioner of a collective art that's itself a model of how to thrive without gods.

Listen to James Carney : MP3 Format La Guerra Nueva

There've been regular bulletins about Carney. He was a 1996 finalist in the Hennessey Cognac Jazz Search, though the honor was somewhat ambiguous. (Alcohol: stimulant or anesthetic?) In 1999, he won the International Jazz Composers Award from the respected Thelonious Monk Institute. In 2000, he got a California Arts Council composer's fellowship; in 2001, an American Composers Forum grant. This year, he was handed the L.A. Weekly Music Award for best jazz artist.

None of this meant Carney could quit his day job editing IMAX movies. Maybe there are just too many distracting klieg lights around here; he's gotten some of his best receptions on the road.

"It seems like every time we play outside of L.A., there are more people, and we sell a ton of records, and we sign autographs, and they all go crazy!" says Carney, while allowing that if fans don't tear his shirt off in the street here, he doesn't take it personally. Anyway, when he thinks about moving to New York, he figures he can better support his music and family among the squirrels than among the rats.

It's easy to hear why Carney grabs ears when he hits New Orleans or Pensacola. The beacons that originally drew him to jazz piano included the Crescent City's Professor Longhair and James Booker, and up-and-down Creole syncopations are peppered through much of his music, heated up by the hands and feet of Dan Morris, a drummer who needs no prodding. When these two get into it, they can about shake your neck off.

Carney praises Morris, his 10-year collaborator, for treating the pianist's music as his own. "That's had a profound effect. What I like about this new record is that it's a trio record, and my role changed a lot. I went from being a composer and bandleader and arranger and supervisor and producer to just having more confidence about my voice on piano."

He's talking about Thread, a departure from the more tightly arranged, multi-instrumented Fables From the Aqueduct and Offset Rhapsody (1994 and 1997). What hasn't changed is Carney's role as an abstract storyteller. This, above his continuing strengths as a chord structuralist, an improviser and an owner of a distinctively penetrating touch, is the factor that most sets him apart.

Listen to "La Guerra Nueva," one of the many delicate ballads that stock his larder. Nobody finds beauty in uncertainty quite like Carney, and in his long solo introduction, the protagonist (a person? a nation?) casts his wondering, wounded gaze around, trailing occasional dissonant bass notes, the relics of a continuity that no longer applies. Drums and bass percolate into a joined mission, and the trio strives gradually upward, chords overlapping; it finds a plateau, then slips slightly back, finally losing its feet and tumbling to the bottom of the stairs, banging its head. Lights out.

The disc's concluding "Broken Spirit" is a companion piece to "Guerra," seeming to whisper, "Why, why, why?," struggling against stasis, sustaining on Dan Lutz's bowed bass and launching into chaotic frenzy before sagging into a faint. The wandering "Pearblossom Heights" dawns into a realization of divine grace. The two parts of "Grassy Shoal Hoedown" take you on very different breakaway rides. And "Louisiana Raga" is an ambitious meld of Delhi drone, counterpoint stabs and slowly settling Delta sediment.

This is not typical jazz. In others' tunes, you admire coloristic explosions or elegant variations on a theme. Carney's are more like movies.

Since Thread is a collection of live studio takes, it resembles the Carney Trio in a club. But you don't get to see the magicians. At a Rocco performance a couple of months ago, Carney's in a baseball cap, crowding over the keys like he's expecting them to escape, piling his hands on top of each other at the high end during an energized solo. Big, head-shaved Morris is a restless drummer, always changing dynamics, now whamming off-accents, now tickling sticks on the rim of his snare, now pattering the skins with his hands. Lutz hulks over his standup bass -- his thick, spare insertions contrast with the more motile style of Todd Sickafoose, whom he replaced in the trio a year ago. (The two split the tracks on Thread.)

They groove a lot: This writer finds himself stomping on the base of his table at one point. But they refuse to groove in the usual way; their rhythm unites from three different directions. This interests musicians, some of whom are usually in the audience at a Carney show. Tonight it's superpercussionist Brad Dutz (who often teams with Morris), just to the right of the stage, twitching his foot and nodding in time. Tuba player William Roper drops in for the second set. Whether through his techniques or his stories, Carney can reach practically anyone.

He seems looser these days. True? "No question about it, and more to come," says Carney, who has a casual way of speaking but a voice like a radio announcer. "When we're relaxed, we make our best music. I feel like the potential's always there to let go, and it's up to you to just do it. It's a simple concept, but it really gets in the way of most players."

Well, not everybody can step off the edge like Roadrunner and keep walking in thin air. "Yeah, but once you realize that the worst that's gonna happen is eventually you're gonna die and nobody'll care anyway, then you feel better about it."

CARNEY GOT WHERE HE IS BY GUT instinct. He started at the age of 8 in his native Syracuse, New York -- playing classical tuba, not jazz piano. After a foundation in the local youth symphony, performing everything from Rimsky-Korsakov to Elliott Carter, he followed his love of the Beatles and Pink Floyd into rock; he says he played 1,200 gigs in five years as a keyboardist, both with cover bands and with original-material outfits such as Screen Test. That group's guitarist, Steve "Arty" Lenin, made him listen to Monk and Mingus. It cost the group a member.

Before then, jazz to Carney was Steely Dan and Jeff Beck, but he immediately knew he had to plumb the real thing. He heard that you could find your own sound at CalArts, and enrolled in its music program under director David Roitstein. He learned to compose, learned to play, and graduated in 1990 at the age of 26.

As it happened, Carney emerged into a music world where his natural boundary blurring was right at home -- where former avantist jazz singer Cassandra Wilson could cover the Monkees, Brahms aficionado Brad Mehldau could tap Radiohead, and U2 could dive into electronica. Carney tells the story of a recent question-and-answer encounter with L.A. Philharmonic conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen at a Composers Forum event.

"Basically he said, 'I like all genres, and there are things within each genre I really admire. I love certain things by Prince; I love Radiohead. I think that we're all trying to do the same thing, which is just to express ourselves in a sophisticated and unique way, and hopefully an artistic way that's honest and has integrity.' And I was thinking, 'His attitude is making these 150-year-old pieces sound new. Damn, this is very healthy for orchestral music.'"

It's an epidemic of human health, and James Carney is a carrier.

The James Carney Trio (www. performs at Rocco, Friday and Saturday, August 23 and 24; a copy of Thread comes with each $10 paid admission.

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