Shamek Farrah’s “First Impressions” is an undervalued jazz album

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Shamek Farrah is a relative oddity in the jazz world, even among his familiars and those involved in the genre.

His place as a saxophonist, by all relevant measures, should be one of great stature, considering his proficiency at the instrument, his striking originality and his unique conceptualizations of melodic, harmonic and creative themes.

But somehow, I only came across his name upon one of my many hours spent researching musicians that I don’t know, and I am sure glad that I did. 

Farrah’s landmark recording, the aptly and somewhat ironically-titled “First Impressions” was released in 1974, in a time that some would consider a dark age in the jazz world.

A time when some would say that jazz was dying, some would say that it was already dead, and in the now-immortalized words of Frank Zappa in 1973, “Jazz isn’t dead-it just smells funny.” 

But what Farrah envisioned and brought to life was a musical outpouring that was all at once innovative, catchy and foot-tappingly unique, and I’m frankly shocked that I hadn’t heard of it until last week.

The first track, “’Meterologicly Tuned’”—no, that’s not a typo—gives an accurate idea of what’s to come: a romping rendition through a very identifiably free-type theme in the same vein as some late Mingus, early Dolphy or Booker Ervin recordings.

The bass solo near the end is sublime and the rest of the band comes in with an urgency that is commendable by anyone’s standards. 

Speaking of standards, there are none to be seen, as this four-song album is made up of strictly originals. “’Watch What Happens Now”’ is a ballad, aimed at the gentle ear, but it’s not devoid of the free-wheeling nature of its precedents and antecedents.

The bass here is decidedly reminiscent of some early-to-mid Dave Holland cuts, particularly in the crisp piano-bass-drums (PBD) interplay. Farrah takes a backseat after stating the theme all too clearly, letting the band do the work—and they sure do a damn good job of it.

The third track, “’Umoja Suite’”, features a Freddie Hubbard sound-alike, adding his trumpet to the mix on a track that could have been taken off of any mid-70s Jazz Messengers albums.

Sonelius Smith delivers some sweeping piano lines near the tail end of the track. The fourth, final and title track, “‘First Impressions’”, was one I featured on my radio show, Trading Fours, on Radio Laurier last week.

It’s a swirling mix of a slowly rising and falling sax and trumpet melody line that stands in sharp contrast to the distinctively grooving PBD combo, and here Smith again shows off his now-infamous skills in top form.

Maybe it’s just because I saw the film recently, but I can just picture him playing these running lines, drifting off into a realm all his own, like Joe Gardner in Disney Pixar’s “Soul,”. 

But, all in all, this is a band that clearly flows together, if not evident by their obvious musical skill, then instead by the complex and unique musical ideas being expressed. 

All in all, well worth the listen; highly recommended for any burgeoning jazz fans looking to explore the freer ends of the genre.

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