Josh Roseman Unit sets new standards for jazz [an error occurred while processing this directive]
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., August 26, 2002) – It’s one of the great ironies that at a time when jazz is being enshrined by high-culture types as “America’s classical music,” the once-popular music is so seemingly irrelevant to the masses. There is plenty of blame to go around for this sad state of affairs, from the misguided, neo-traditional revisionism of Ken Burns and Wynton Marsalis to the purveyors of slick “smooth jazz,” really instrumental pop masquerading as something of more substance.

There are, however, reasons to hope that relief may be on the horizon, and that jazz may not suffer the death by ossification that sometimes looks to be its destiny.

On the one hand, there is the growing jam-band movement in rock, which looks to jazz for inspiration and creative freedom. While jam bands have a long way to go to develop a grammar or vocabulary on the level of jazz, the best are getting there, and most importantly, are bringing along new, young audiences to the music.

But perhaps even more promising is a movement among younger jazz musicians to return jazz to its populist roots by turning to contemporary pop music for the raw material for improvisation. From “I Got Rhythm” to “My Favorite Things,” jazz used pop songs as vehicles for entertaining audiences with familiar material that they could dance to and that the musicians could improvise upon.

Ironically, this trend is found mostly among non-mainstream, avant-garde outfits like the Josh Roseman Unit, which entertained a crowd of listeners and revelers at Club Helsinki on Saturday night.

Roseman’s quintet based most of its improvisations in deep funk, rock and r&b grooves that allowed the melody players, particularly trombonist Roseman and keyboardist/saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum, to explore the outer limits of the songs’ harmonic structures.

Thus, on one number, the rhythm section of Liberty Ellman on guitar, Patrice on bass and J.T. Lewis on drums laid down a solid bed of groove, over which Roseman and Apfelbaum on saxophone took solo turns while punctuating and paraphrasing each other’s prhases. Ellman also added melody, playing big, single notes with fat texture, first in slow patterns and then increasingly fast.

Another number had a vague New Orleans feel, with Roseman squeezing out a pinched, talking tone through his instrument. Apfelbaum spread thick layers of soul-jazz organ on a tune, and Ellman answered with power chords and bluesy, deconstructed riffs out of the Carlos Santana playbook.

The group’s rendition of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” was remarkably faithful to the original, save for Roseman’s trombone substituting for Robert Plant’s histrionic vocals. The song provided a natural rhythmic vamp for the soloists to build upon, and on the other side of the solos, in a perfect bit of rock-history critique, the band came out playing Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

Apfelbaum and Roseman worked well together particularly as a two-man horn section, at their most melodic sounding like what the group Chicago could have been if it were ever serious about the jazz in the jazz-rock equation. The proof was the consistent crowd of dancers partying it up in front of the stage – jazz restored to its rightful place as party music with no sacrifice of its musical sophistication.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 26, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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