By Andrew Gilbert
In the days before CDs, a record’s fate could rise or fall on the strength of its cover art. Bay Area trumpeter Ian Carey has put almost as much creative energy into his new album’s package as into the tunes, even though he acknowledges the CD is fading into history.
Ian Carey possesses a bright, gleaming tone and a knack for attracting similarly accomplished musicians. Featuring material gleaned from sources far beyond jazz’s usual ken, his new album “Roads & Codes” reflects a singular vision, musical and otherwise.
A graphic designer by day-he also maintains a smart and often savagely funny blog-Carey turned the CD’s cover into a self-mocking 10-panel comic strip. The art depicts his quandary over how to present a new jazz album so that it might actually find an audience. On the back, his manga-inspired illustrations suggest the mindset with which he approaches each piece. While not presented as a suite, the album flows like an interlaced book of short stories, an impression heightened by his beautifully rendered art work.
Carey’s “Rain Tune,” the album’s opener is a programmatic piece that evokes the course of a spring shower on a windowpane, from the moister-laden atmosphere and the downpour to the crisp calm that follows. He’s equally evocative on Neil Young’s disquieting theme from Jim Jarmusch’s surreal 1995 western “Dead Man.” With its simple chord changes, it’s the kind of piece many jazz musicians would avoid, but Carey turns it into a haunting soundscape, processing his horn with multiple effects to suggest the tune’s rock origins.
With about a decade of shared experience on the bandstand, Carey’s quintet features some of the Bay Area’s best players, including pianist Adam Shulman, bassist Fred Randolph and drummer Jon Arkin.
The only newcomer is the reliably incisive alto saxophonist Kasey Knudsen, who adds a jolt of quicksilver energy to the front line with flutist and tenor saxophonist Evan Francis, like on “Count Up,” Carey’s punchy take on the chord changes to John Coltrane’s harmonic steeplechase “Count Down.”
Carey saves his most personal music for last, concluding the album with a modernist three-piece mini-suite that erases distinctions between jazz and classical music. He sandwiches his rustic, bluesy composition “The Thread” between Stravinsky’s brief and sublime “Andante,” and Charles Ives’ “West London.” Carey weaves fragments of the sensuous “Andante” in and out of “The Thread” adding to the sense of narrative cohesion, while building to Ives’ majestic fanfare.
As a composer and arranger, Ian Carey has listened deeply to seminal figures like Bill Holman, Andrew Hill, George Russell, and Maria Schneider, with whom he studied at New York City’s New School. But “Roads & Codes” is the work of a musician pursuing his own thoughtful, painterly vision.
Some jazz fans treasure swaggering trumpeters who spit fire, but that’s not where Carey is coming from. Rather than offering big surprises, he traffics in unexpected connections and understated revelations. If his witty graphics help him find fans, this is one case where you’re unlikely to go wrong judging an album by its cover.