Does jazz have a melody problem?

Phil Sargent and Daniel Bennett try a new approach
By JON GARELICK  |  June 2, 2010

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A MASTER’S IN CLASSICAL SAXOPHONE? The idea, says Bennett, was to complement his jazz skills by honing his sound.

It seems lately that every other jazz musician I talk to under 40 wants to talk about melody — how it’s the thing they all care about. As if bebop, swing, and David S. Ware were not about melody. But their point is well taken: they’re dealing with an audience alienated by jazz’s perceived over-complexity, as well as with their own ambivalence about a tradition that has little relation to the pop music they grew up with and feel closest to.

Phil Sargent, 36, plays jazz guitar. Daniel Bennett, 31, is a saxophonist and flutist. In separate conversations, they talk about their desire to write — and play — an “honest melody,” something unencumbered by the bric-a-brac of jazz complexity but still reflective of jazz’s ensemble give-and-take and, of course, improvisation.

Sargent — who plays Chianti in Beverly this Friday and Ryles next Friday — is celebrating the release of A New Day, which freely mixes rock and jazz. The divide is most evident in his tone, which sometimes glows with the rich bell-like reverb of late-modern jazz guitar and sometimes explodes with full-on rock distortion. But it’s there in his songwriting and his rhythms, too. So “Gridlock” trades in harmonic freedom and rhythmic elasticity, whereas the easy-loping, symmetrical verse-chorus design of “Kelita” is a sweet pop tune, and “8.31” and “Powerplay” trade in heavy rock backbeats. Another pop element is the formidable vocalist Aubrey Johnson, who reinforces the melodic content of the pieces, often singing (wordlessly) in unison with Sargent’s guitar. Aside from delivering his challenging material with complete confidence — no matter the complexity or range — she’s also an adept improviser.

Sargent — originally from Andover, New Hampshire — started out as a prog-rock guy with a taste for Rush and “early Journey.” He got into jazz because his heroes always talked about it in the guitar-magazine interviews. He picked up a collection of classic middle-period Miles Davis with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams. “I didn’t get it,” he tells me over coffee at the Kenmore Square Starbucks. “I hated it. But I forced myself to listen to it because it was supposed to be what musicians listened to.” Then he amends himself: “I didn’t hate it, I just didn’t get it. But then I started hearing all this stuff that was going on, all the conversations. And I became very intrigued by that.”

Those conversations remain a big motivator. He gathered bassist Greg Lougham and drummer Mike Connors into the core trio of A New Day because they had experience playing in many other bands together — there would be an easy intimacy in the collaboration, a lot to say to each other. Although he’d never written for voice before, he was impressed with Johnson when they were both in keyboardist Brian Friedland’s experimental improv band Rhombus. Friedland and pianist John Funkhouser also help out on a couple of tracks.

Sargent’s one other CD as leader was 2002’s For Carl, and he characterizes “Gridlock” as more typical of his earlier work: extended-form, “really epic, hard-to-play odd-metery things.” With the new album, he says, he wanted to start from, yes, “a basic honest melody and try to turn that into something instead of coming out with all guns blazing.”

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