Joe Farnsworth Celebrates New York City’s Vitality


“Where else could this happen than New York?” Joe Farnsworth says about his favorite city.

(Photo: John Abbott)

Drummer Joe Farnsworth, like countless other New York musicians, was largely out of work for more than a year-and-a-half because the pandemic leveled the city and demolished its entertainment core. But unlike some who sought shelter in safer places, Farnsworth stayed put at his home in Riverdale, north of Manhattan in the Bronx. It was a trying time for the city, he recognized. But he tried to figure out how he could possibly give back to it after it had nurtured him for so many years.

A key moment in Farnsworth’s COVID-era life came in May 2020 with the Black Lives Matter march in the city following George Floyd’s killing by police officers. He joined the march as an act of protest that started in the upper Manhattan neighborhood of Inwood and continued through an array of others, all of which confirmed to him how much he loved — and was indebted to — this city.

“There were so many different sounds as we went to Washington Heights, then Harlem and the Upper West Side,” he said. “From one neighborhood to the next, there was music in the streets and being blasted out of windows in apartments. It was jazz, Dominican and Puerto Rican salsa, funk and rap. All these different people — Eastern Europeans, Latin Americans, Japanese and African Americans — were marching because together we all wanted justice and peace. People were enraged, but they also expressed passion. It was all about speaking up. Where else could this happen than New York?”

That sentiment forms the core of Farnsworth’s swinging new album, City Of Sounds, a superb trio date celebrating New York for its jazz legacy as well as its present vitality. Freshly recorded live at Smoke, it features pianist Kenny Barron (his first date at the club) and bassist Peter Washington. “It is a pandemic album,” said Farnsworth, who exhilarates, brushes and shimmers with the life force of his instrument. “But the coronavirus could never kill the music. Look at Roy Haynes. He’s still here in this city. If he’s here, I’m here, too.”

The trio played a three-night gig at Smoke Feb. 19–21, 2021, while the Delta-variant was raging. The players emerged from the wings with Farnsworth remembering the advice that Junior Cook used to give him: The stage is a sacred place even if the circumstances are not ideal. With baffles placed in between each band member and no audience (note the lack of applause after each of the five originals and three reimagined standards), Farnsworth said, “We just walked in and forgot all the troubles.”

With bebop in the air, Barron’s original “New York Attitude” explodes as the intro to what’s in the wings. “Kenny is a national treasure and to come all the way uptown shows how committed he is,” Farnsworth said. “There’s not a better city sound than what Kenny plays. He was very quiet, but you knew you had to be on your toes playing with him. He was 100% open to the tunes, making suggestions as we went along.” Barron also set into motion “Bud-Like,” his speedy tribute to his hero Bud Powell that opens into two drum choruses.

In the liner notes, written by George Cables, Farnsworth comments: “Kenny is jazz piano royalty … his playing is just majestic. When you have someone like that available to you, it’s a no-brainer to take advantage of it. That’s why I live in New York — it’s as simple as that.”

Farnsworth delivers three of his originals, including the bluesy-soul title track that sounds like an invitation to dance, the fast-flying “No Fills,” which takes the listener on a Billy Higgins-dedicated trip fueled by the drummer’s extended solo, and the sensitive, tender “Ojos Cariñosos,” a lyrical beauty in which Farnsworth takes particular pride.

He suggested that the trio play the gem “Moonlight In Vermont,” a 1944 hit by Karl Suessdorf and John Blackburn.

“I heard Betty Carter singing that from records in the ’50s,” he said. “This was a last-second request. I asked Kenny if he knew it. He said maybe, and then he got it perfect.”

Brooks countered with a request that the band play the bright “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise,” a hopeful number where the pianist ends the show by delivering playful harmonies.

Farnsworth hopes City Of Sounds sets the record straight on the city he loves.

“I’m not big on social media, but I’ve heard people are talking bad about the city,” he said. “It’s bombarded with negativity. The music is dying here. Students overseas wonder why they need to come to New York to study. I can’t believe this narrative.

“I’m here to say that jazz in New York will never die. It may seem like all the music happened 3,000 years ago, but Charlie Parker, Billy Higgins, Max Roach and all the others are still here. You can feel their presence.” DB

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