Sam Yahel: Truth and Beauty

Truth and Beauty
By Sam Yahel Trio

Sam Yahel’s musical identity can be seen as a reflection of his general character. I’ve known him since 1990 when he came to New York City. Already then, Sam had a wide-ranging curiosity about a broad range of knowledge, and an inherent ability to quickly absorb that knowledge and assimilate it, bringing it into the context of whatever he was doing. He is always probing deeper as a musician, never content to rest on what he already has mastered. I’ve admired that trait from the beginning of his development, watching how he created his own sound. Sam’s own voice as an improviser, composer, and bandleader, comes through very clearly on the present recording, Truth And Beauty, which is arguably his strongest recording as a leader thus far.

As a listener who has followed Sam’s playing for quite some time now, the music here strikes me as the fruition of a lot of labor and love, and could be seen as a summation of sorts. Everything that he has gathered over the years presents itself in a cohesive statement, and makes for a rewarding, deeply pleasurable listening experience.

Sam’s versatility has been an advantage for him throughout his career thus far, and has kept him busy. Practically from the beginning, his phone was ringing, and as long as I’ve known him, there have always been people who want to play with him. As a result, for quite some time, Sam has been the consummate sideman. More recently, for example, he has worked with Joshua Redman, Bill Frisell, and Madeleine Peryroux – three fascinating musicians, each with a very distinctive identity. Sam’s ability to move with ease among such company is a testament to his versatility, and again, it points to certain character traits of his. In this case, it’s a question of integrity. As a musician, Sam is in it for the long run, and his creative decisions along the way have reflected that stance. One such decision has been to pace himself in terms of his own output as a leader, and meanwhile, leave his mark on other people’s projects.

If you want to lead a band in the jazz world, where do you look to for a model? How do you develop your own style? There are thousands of recordings from which to draw guidance, but nothing can replace being a sideman in someone else’s band and learning through that experience. And the more disparate your various tenures are, taken as a whole, the more opportunity you have to find out what works for you as a leader and what doesn’t, when the time comes. The soundness of this apprenticeship approach seems obvious enough, and it’s the path that Sam has followed throughout his development. Not everyone jazz musician necessarily adheres to this approach, though. Many people rush to form their own bands and record their own records as quickly as possible, and what they will then perhaps lack down the road is a valuable way of gauging their own output.

When you are a sideman, to varying degrees, depending on how dictatorial the leader is, you are submitting yourself to his or her vision; you are momentarily relinquishing your own identity. As a younger musician, this is not usually tragic, because the identity isn’t there so much yet, but it becomes much more interesting when you really start to excel at what you do: Your identity starts to smash against that of the leader, and while a certain amount of friction can be exciting, usually an excellent sideman will try to find a compromise, where he can retain his own preferred approach in a given playing situation, and still give the leader what he or she wants. When a musician masters this ability to retain his identity in a variety of situations, while still honoring the vision of the other players around, we can say that he “has his own sound.” That is no small distinction; many musicians never find their own sound.

I came to New York in 1988 and Sam arrived two years later, so we really “grew up” musically together, and I had the opportunity to watch Sam develop his own sound. There are perhaps several valid ways of defining what constitutes having one’s own sound, but the above definition applies to Sam, and also to Joshua Redman and Brian Blade, the other two musicians on this recording. The three of them share this ability to assert their own musical principles without relinquishing a spirit of flexibility. I believe that this flexibility is a hallmark of ‘Gen X’ players, and perhaps the younger jazz musicians coming up now. While it is risky business to write historically while the history is still unfolding, it’s nonetheless possible to identify this common attribute that Sam, Josh and Brian share – a certain healthy malleability – as at least partially informed by the climate in which they developed their respective voices.

All of us who began sharing our music with the public in earnest in the early 1990’s, in our 20’s, have a strange distinction: We are the first generation in jazz that has no distinguishing playing style to speak of. There are many styles that we have latched onto, and some of us have made the rare leap into originality, but there is not one form of playing jazz that takes precedence over others for us, the way, for instance, be-bop, hard bop, modal playing, and fusion did at various other times. This characteristic of our generation is typically expressed in negative terms, as the absence of something, but that absence of identity also implies an absence of constraint. Without one strong identity, we are without a playbook, and are free to wander between various disciplines.

Musicians like Sam, Josh and Brian have initiated a way of wandering around various disciplines – hard bop, modal jazz, funk, free playing, classically informed composition, pop harmony – in such a way that the transitions are organic. Indeed, often there is no discernible transition; there is simply this wealth of disparate influences that coalesces into their own vision. The music on Truth And Beauty can be seen in this light. It might be tempting to refer to this playing ethos as “postmodern”, but that would be misleading. For “postmodern” often implies a pastiche of styles: the disparate elements of a given piece of music, artwork, etc., will not necessarily gel into a cohesive whole. The idea is then to exploit this lack of unity and revel in the incongruity of the material. This implies a necessarily ironic stance, and irony for its own sake is not what Sam, Josh and Brian are up to here. (One could level a critique against that ethos of pastiche that permeated in the 90’s and inevitably entered into the jazz scene through mostly Gen-X adherents: many of its offerings were crippled by a lack of sincerity.)

On the contrary, the strong identity of this trio, and the way Sam has arranged the music here, eclipses the choice of material. As a listener, you may recognize the original source and smile at that, but ultimately you’ll be moved by the strength of the present performance itself. Consider the juxtaposition of two tracks here: “Night Game”, an overlooked gem of Paul Simon’s; and Ornette Coleman’s essay, “Check-Up”. In terms of their genres – pop and free jazz – these two tunes look like they’re on opposite poles of this record, on paper at least. But in fact they sit alongside each other in terms of mood. Both are in major key signatures, and both have a rhythmic ease – “Check Up”, while free of a fixed meter, nevertheless communicates a wonderful laxness. They are two of the warmest, most placid tracks on the record, and effectively buffer the up-tempo animation of tunes like “Truth and Beauty” and “Saba”, or the darker minor key hues of “Man O’War” and “Bend the Leaves”.

Sam, Josh and Brian have so far played and recorded together in two different settings: the Joshua Redman Elastic Band, and the collectively led Yaya 3. Sam’s approach helped to define the sound behind both of these projects, and as the leader here, we can immediately hear his empathy for the other musicians. That manifests itself in the way he shapes the music – in his own writing on the six originals here, and also, importantly, in the way he has arranged and paced each performance. The architecture of the songs – which soloist is featured where, for instance – exploits the natural strengths of all three musicians. The effective and imaginative way that Sam allows form to follow function throughout this record is probably another trait that he has garnered from his sideman experience over the years. It’s all about making everyone shine.

There are countless sonic options that a player has on the Hammond B-3 organ through use of the drawbars on the instrument, and Sam has honed in on several specific arrangements of those drawbars to develop his own sound palette. Some of those settings are more directly informed by the history of the instrument and its chief practitioners, while others are more idiosyncratic. On this record, the listener can hear how Sam’s choices in this regard always fit a given context.

His sonic gambit on “Bend The Leaves” is particularly effective, and more generally, this track shows how Sam, Josh and Brian are always intuitively orchestrating for each other. For the majority of the song, Sam favors a dark, woody sound that works great with Brian’s hand drumming at the beginning of the tune, creating a mood of muted sorrow. When Josh enters, his plaintive reading of the melody adds to this verklemmpt feeling, because of the way he carefully calibrates his tone with what’s already going on. Especially in the alto register of his horn, he thins his sound slightly, and holds back, not unleashing everything. Here, Josh displays an important strength he has as a horn player: although he has a large sound and a lot of reserve power on the horn, he is always so attentive to how he blends with the instruments around him. This ability of Josh’s isn’t mentioned as much as other more obvious attributes of his, like his great virtuosity on the instrument, yet it’s an important component in his own recordings, and is definitely put to use throughout Truth and Beauty. Just listening to the way Josh blends with his surroundings on Sam’s melodies is a pleasure in itself.

Sam’s shift of a few drawbars, though, is the secret weapon on “Bend The Leaves.” It takes place during the poignant transitional material that occurs after the main theme and between the solos. A higher drawbar is employed in such a way that the organ suddenly shimmers slightly, and the timber change highlights the dramatic effect of this section, which is all about emotional release from what has thus far taken place. It’s a subtle masterstroke.

Although Sam’s means of expression here is the organ, to understand him as a musician, it helps to consider the way he has balanced his musical output between the organ and the piano throughout his career. Sam began with the piano and discovered the organ later. In addition to absorbing lots of jazz piano, he also studied classically for several years, and it plays an important part in Sam’s musical expression on the organ as well. Cross-pollination between the world of Bach and Chopin and the world of Jimmy Smith and Larry Young doesn’t sound immediately obvious, but it’s not so much a stylistic influence from classical music that you hear; rather, Sam has absorbed certain musical principles from that oeuvre and assimilated them into his writing for the organ trio, and his improvisatory approach as well.

One such principle is voice-leading – the notion that each voice in a chord moves with logic and integrity, and corresponds with the other notes. The tendency in jazz is often to split the music into a single note melody and a chordal accompaniment, and for a jazz pianist that division takes place, more often than not, between the right and left hand respectively. Individual voice-leading often takes a back seat in this approach when the left hand plays fixed chords that have been worked out ahead of time, and therefore will not necessarily have any melodic integrity in the way they move between each other. An organist has a further challenge, because the left hand is already busy playing a bass line. One way to answer this challenge is to have the right hand supply the melody and harmony both. Sam does just that in a myriad of ways on this record, but one particular way that he gives the listener melody and harmony on this record shows up several times, and it’s where his ear for voice-leading comes into play. It’s a minimalist approach in the best sense of the word – he gets the most out of a few notes by finding just the right notes to play.

Take the opening title track, “Truth and Beauty.” After the brief introduction that establishes the simmering groove between Sam and Brian, we here the melody on the organ. The first time through, Sam plays it in single notes, with only the bass line under it. The simplicity is just right, because it allows the listener to initially hone in on the melody. We hear its opening motif, the way it arches outward and develops, and curves back downward, making a succinct opening paragraph for us, one that is completely diatonic. Next, Sam gives us the same melody with an added note below it, immediately moving in contrary motion with its own melodic logic. The second voice, with its chromatic movement, effectively enriches the harmonic implication of what we heard the first time, deepening the hue of the tune and developing the plot of the story we are hearing thus far.

A similar strategy is used on the haunting waltz, “Man O’War”, where the melody is heard first played by Sam in single notes in a casual, swinging fashion, punctuated by funky chords that give us a sketch of the harmony. The second time through the same material, Sam harmonizes the melody, and phrases it more deliberately – it’s a great effect, as if to say, “Now listen more closely this time; I’m revealing more.” After the bridge, when Josh enters on the melody, the whole thematic statement has a gravity and wonderful inevitability about it, because of the logical way it has developed thus far.

Again, the narrative aspect of Sam’s vision strikes me. In both of those tunes, his storytelling comes through in two concrete ways: in the song itself, and in the way he arranges the ensemble. The strategy of keeping Josh on deck for the initial thematic statement, and bringing him in a little ways into the tune, is simple but very effective: First, the listener is drawn into how much two musicians like Sam and Brian Blade can do together. A mere pair, they nevertheless sound orchestrally complete, due in no small part to Brian’s constant invention on the drum kit. Just listening to Brian’s drums alone on the initial duo statement of the melody in “Man O’War” – the way he begins minimally, at a softer dynamic, and then progressively spreads out, using more drums, varying the rhythm and building dynamically – is a lesson in thematic development. Here it must be said that one factor that sets apart Brian Blade as a drummer – and I would even say one of the most important musicians of his generation on any instrument, period – is his ability to shape a song and give it glue in such a rich, inventive manner. He gives any particular composition added heft as soon as he starts playing. It could be a composition of Sam, but also of Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, or Wayne Shorter, to mention a few other musicians and songwriters who have sought him out over the years.

Thematic development within the genre of jazz composition is a particular challenge. The word a musician uses to describe a particular piece of music is telling: He or she will say, “I wrote a new tune.” The word ‘tune’ suggests something casual and offhand. In the best examples of jazz composition, though, this kind of self-effacing description belies the deeper meaning that can reveal itself within an admittedly shorthand genre; most of the time jazz tunes try to stay relatively compact so they can provide a fluid and concise format for the improvisation that will ensue. It strikes me that Sam’s writing on this record has reached a new level. His tunes here are not just great vehicles for improvising. Each one is miniature story.

Sam often develops the plot by casting the initial material of a given composition in a different light. On “Man O’War”, we can see an example of the first of those two strategies. In its chordal movement, the mysterious organ introduction establishes a link between two very distant keys – the tonic C Minor and E major. Setting these tonal centers adjacent to each other spurred the imagination of composers like Brahms, in his first symphony or first piano quartet. They are opposite in mood – C Minor is dark and tends toward somber, while E Major is all light and joy. When the “head” of the tune proper starts, we are clearly in a minor-keyed world for a stretch of time, until the bridge section arrives, beginning on E major. At this moment, the heraldic effect on the listener comes in part because of the freshness of the harmonic change, but also because we’ve been prepped for the moment – we realize that the introductory material of “Man O’War”, with its mystery and uncertainty, was in fact a thesis-like, condensed statement of the entire song. It is a way of telling what the song is “about”: the distance between these two tonal centers is conveyed in the introduction, and the actual journey takes place throughout the rest of the performance.

In “Saba”, another original, Sam also uses tonal and metric relationships, to great compositional effect. Here, the idea is to contrast two very different moods from each other. We could maybe describe them as waking reality and its antidote of daydream and fantasy. During the opening ‘reality’ theme, heard in A-flat Major, the meter is a tricky, asymmetrical hopscotch of three, three and four. The rhythmic dynamic here is very much the domain of Sam, Josh and Brian. Worthy in complexity of Bartok’s music or prog-rock, the feel is a rollicking, funky dance. This is something these guys excel at – making an unconventional meter sound natural and fluid. It only becomes tricky when you try to count it!

This A-Flat major section – I kind of picture a jaunt through midtown Manhattan during rush hour, adeptly skipping around oncoming pedestrian traffic - is contrasted suddenly by an interlude in D Major. The tonality change is significant because of the tri-tone relationship between the two keys. D Major is furthest possible key from A-Flat Major; they sit, so to speak, on opposite ends of the circle. We immediately sense a radical shift in mood. Appropriately, the time feel downshifts for this D Major bit, along with the overall dynamic level of the trio, and we’re at half speed now, in a killing 7/4 groove, at once stately and dreamy, punctuated by Brian’s perfectly minimal commentary as he moves away from the cymbals, favoring a drier sound for this section. Although this interlude is radically different than what preceded it – we’re now perhaps in the daydream of that virtuosic pedestrian after he or she has boarded the subway and sat down – it’s nevertheless possible to discern that, as in “Man O’War”, the moment has been prepared for us to some extent. The melody reminds us, strangely, of the syncopated hustle-bustle of the first melody, in a very far-off, removed kind of way. The reality theme and the dreamy one have a motific resemblance: in both, the center of gravity is squarely on the tonic, and in both cases as well, the melody approaches that tonic from the flatted 7th scale tone a step below the tonic, playing with that stepwise relationship. A listener hears this kind of underlying architecture intuitively, and it gives Sam’s compositions on this record their depth.

The title of the record, Sam explained, comes from a poem by Keats. In it, truth and beauty are equated with each other: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty," - that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. The sentiment is twofold: Beauty must contain truth in order to exist, so when we perceive beauty, it communicates that truth to us. The idea is an old one and has appeared in various contexts over the years. Perhaps it takes its cue from Plato, who posited idealized forms that lie behind everything, hidden, and give the visible world a shape that makes sense to us. It has taken a beating over the years by empiricists and relativists alike because it posits truth as something objective and outside of us, and not just a human construct, subject to the vagaries of our perception, which constantly shifts with historical circumstances. Basically, these arguments rest on a rejoinder: If beauty communicates truth, then what is truth?

However unanswerable that question may be, the idea that truth and beauty are one in the same has never completely lost currency in the realm of art, as a way of explaining the mysterious rightness of a particular artwork – the way it pleases a large group of people immediately and without explanation or effort. With art, the argument goes, the conceit that truth and/or beauty are objective is temporarily permitted, because art for us is already bracketed out of everyday reality: Art is a bridge between those eternal, hidden forms of Plato and our ordinary perception. It reveals truth obliquely, showing us only its contours, and we submit willingly to its shadow game of abstraction. If art doesn’t do this, one could argue – if it only represents the reality that’s already around us – then it remains topical, like those pastiche offerings that merely communicate the abundant, immediately perceivable disharmony that’s all around us.

Sam’s gloss on the poem is to locate truth in the intent of the musician. Far from being a self-evident proclamation, Sam explained that the title of the record points to a realization that gestated for years, and crystallized relatively recently. He examined his own motives as a musician, and found that they were not always “true”. For example, he reflected that his playing was at times too involved in a quest to excel and be the best, and that this desire obscured the potential beauty of the music-making experience for him. Furthermore, he saw that when this more ego-driven desire was absent, the music was more beautiful. The beauty, then, comes from honesty about the nature of one’s motivation as a musician. Although it can be uncomfortable to confront the more ego-related aspects of one’s musical persona, this process of self-examination is ultimately rewarding for the musician and the listener alike. The music here is not trying to be anything other than what it is, and this secure alignment of intent and actual creation – of truth and beauty – contributes to its aesthetic success.

– Brad Mehldau