The inner sleeve art of bassist Patrick ‘PW’ Farrell’s debut album, The Life Electric, depicts the man – face obscured by a hip-hop cap – towering over the remains of a smashed and very dead acoustic guitar. He is holding his electric 5-string like the weapon that did the deed.
It is a powerful image and a fitting one for an album that almost entirely eschews the woody acoustic (sound) world for the electric (and electronic) one. Apart from a little trumpet, sax, guitar and vocal spread thinly across the tracks (and ‘real’ drums on only two out of the ten here) all this music is performed and programmed by Farrell.
The purists will yelp (which is never a bad thing) but in The Life Electric, Farrell has created one of the better albums of the year – at least to these ears. Charges of electronic ‘coldness’ and lack of human interaction and warmth will be leveled, but it never bothered Herbie or Miles, so it shouldn’t concern us.
In fact the whole sheen of the album brings to mind some of Miles Davis’ 80s work, such as You’re Under Arrest and Star People – albums which have recently been re-evaluated as the masterworks they are. Farrell adds a very contemporary spin of samples and chattering computer beats to the mix, all of it done with as much taste as the best constructed Matt McMahon (or Steve Hunter) solo.
But whereas fellow electric bassist Hunter – most recently on his live album Cosmos – moves through the music interacting with his band organically, Farrell gives his bass no less room to move, but istead plays inside a taut web of programmed beats and accents.
A startling instrumental technician – check the three unaccompanied pieces: ‘Irish Sons’, ‘Barcaldine’ and ‘I Have Wandered’ – Farrell will happily sit under on a hip-hop groove such as the title track, ‘The Life Electric’ or a lazily snapping lope such as ‘Inspiration’ (tenor player Daniel Rorke reading the mood perfectly in his solo).
Instruments outside the sealed programmed tracks, such as Carl Morgan’s crisp-toned guitar solo on ‘Jester In The Rain’, never jolt against the computer sounds – it is all woven with great care and skill into a seamless and fine-grained fabric.
When an element is meant to jolt, it does in a surprising and artful way – such as the sample of a Ronald Reagan speech on ‘Liberty’.
In his liner notes to Jaco Pastorius’s 1976 debut album, Herbie Hancock (a man who should know) wrote “Of course, it’s not the technique that makes the music; it’s the sensitivity of the musician and his ability to be able to fuse his life with the rhythm of the times. This is the essence of music.”
The Life Electric is of its time but is also of the tradition of jazz. PW Farrell has caught the balance of both deftly – not an easy thing to do: too many have failed by tipping too far one way or another.
His music deserves a listen.
Published July 2104 on australianjazz.net