All the external trappings of Earthsound suggest new age, beginning with the band’s name and extending to phrases in the liner notes of their album Movement about “the barriers between human culture and the natural world” and “seals recorded underwater in Antarctica.” Eeek!
But the names of the players tell another story: flutist Fernando Brandão, pianist Nando Michelin, drummer Jorge Pérez-Albela — all esteemed jazz musicians on the local scene. The most convincing argument is made by the music itself: beautifully played, vibrant jazz, often based on the most demanding — and “earthy” — of folkloric idioms: Brazilian choro, Peruvian waltz, and Turkish belly dancing music. And yes, there are the voices of the occasional tree frog, but more on that later.
“For sure, part of my goal with this project is to avoid the new-age cliché,” says the bassist and leader of Earthsound, Lexington native Jason Davis. “I have nothing against it. Paul Winter is great. But I really want this to come from the jazz tradition, and world music like Brazilian, and not water it down at all but make it real music.”
No questioning the “real” part. The album opener, the Davis original “Ariane,” is a driving samba, with Brandão, Michelin, and Davis all picking up on the melody-as-rhythm theme in their solos. The same goes for composer Felipe Pinglo’s Peruvian standard “El Plebeyo,” its particular vals criollo rhythm leading to an extended elaboration by the band and a feature for Davis’s distinctive bowing.
Four of the 12 pieces on the CD feature Earthsound improvising with ambient field recordings. In “Summer Lake,” Davis bows against the rhythms and pitches of frogs and crickets. “Monteverde Slow” has Michelin responding to the dense multifarious sounds of a Costra Rican rain forest. “Hermit Thrush,” has Brandão “singing” along with that North American bird. And in “The Seals,” Davis bows long tones and then faster rhythmic figures alongside the eerie clicks, sucks, and whistles of those Antarctic underwater mammals.
“The first time I heard that, I said, ‘What is that?” says Davis of the seals when we get together for lunch on the back patio at Audubon Circle. “I couldn’t believe it was a natural sound. And I love that. I love hearing a sound people don’t associate with ‘nature’ — and it’s almost electronic!” In live shows, Davis triggers the field recordings with an iPod and calls out individual band members to improvise. “Nando has perfect pitch — he can hear a bird call and turn it into a motif to improvise off.” Michelin’s rhythmic, harmonically layered response to the rain forest suggests a combination of bird-loving modernist classical composer Olivier Messiaen and Bill Evans.
Davis’s entire career (he’s 33) has twined his interests in environmental issues and music. A case of tinnitus pushed him away from a musical career for a while and into environmental studies, but he never gave up music entirely. His work in environmental sciences has included research in that Costa Rican rain forest as well as time as a park ranger at the Cape Cod National Seashore. He now has master’s degrees in both interdisciplinary ecology and classical bass. Custom-made earplugs help manage the tinnitus.