FLY: MUSIC FOR EARS, EYES AND LUNGS



Jan. 8 (Bloomberg) -- Listening to the members of jazz trio Fly discuss music in their eager Californian twangs on the interview tape, it's often hard to tell them apart. Not that it matters: Saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard always agree with each other anyway.

The three of them, all in their early 40s and currently touring the U.S., work hard to accept musical history without being limited by it. Fly's music reminds me, strangely enough, of the Doobie Brothers, who sang: ``Music is the doctor, makes you feel like you want to.'' The name Fly is not an acronym; they just like the way it soars.

The Fly musicians are masters of musical complexity, yet never shove that mastery in your face. Swinging with effortless, elegant intricacy, they shift from one time signature and tonality to another with ease. Ease is the key. The music is based on close friendship -- on knowing, and having confidence in, where the other players are going.

It's basically chamber music, and it takes dedicated listening. The African influence is evident; polyrhythms are everywhere. Melodic, harmonic and rhythmic functions shift back and forth; interdependence is built into the arrangements. The drums sometimes play the melody. All three voices are equal: Equality is a compositional device, an improvisational style as well as a political stance. This is dedicated, democratic music.

Grenadier and Ballard have been playing together since their teens. They also serve as Brad Mehldau's rhythm section. They've been friends with Turner for more than 15 years. ``We present multiplicity under an unassuming hat,'' Turner explains on the Web site of the band's manager. ``In other words, we are working toward saying it all without saying it all, expressing complexity by simplicity.''

``Unassuming'' is, in fact, the first adjective Turner brings to mind. The saxophonist is one of only a few major contemporary improvisers obviously influenced by 1950s pianist, composer and guru Lennie Tristano and his tenorman, Warne Marsh.

``One note on the bass can become many things, depending on what Mark plays with it,'' as bassist Grenadier puts it. ``If I play the root of what is a G-minor chord on paper, and he plays a B natural one night, then it just becomes a major chord. We try to play on a level field. We hand off the ball a lot. There's a lot of body language and eye contact.''

If they can't all make a date, they don't book it in the first place. No subs on Fly. A substitute would have difficulty in a kind of structure that includes extensive improvisational freedom within strict form.

The trio grew out of a recording project by Chick Corea called Originations, on which they all contributed compositions. Fly's only, eponymous album was released four years ago on Steve Backer's resurrected Savoy label. (Their version of Jimi Hendrix's ``Spanish Castle Magic'' is magical.) A second CD is in the pipeline, but they're in no hurry.

The members of Fly believe music is best absorbed with the eyes and lungs as well as the ears and soul. Today's accent on live performance -- CD sales are going south -- is both a commercial necessity and an aesthetic blessing. Jazz sounds better live because it's meant to be real-time music -- alive. When Fly played at the Sunside club in Paris late last year, the place was jammed with musicians and their friends, all listening hard to what I fondly hope will be the jazz of the future.

Ballard is the band's optimist. ``There seems to be a general trend toward concern for sound now rather than just the technological reproduction of sound,'' he says. ``I mean people like Fiona Apple, Bjork and Beck, and all the jam bands.

``The pop music you hear today usually sounds like something you heard before -- Norah Jones, for example. But at least more people are concentrating on real musical instruments now rather than electronics. It's back to basics. I'm hearing more individualism.''

Grenadier says Fly is, in many ways, ``a traditional jazz trio. But somehow the music we are making could only happen this year. It's important for us to be doing this now, when people need it. I guess that's what they call cutting edge.''

Fly's tour stops next at the Village Vanguard in New York on Jan. 9-14; at Jazz at the Bistro in St. Louis on Jan. 17-20; and at the Jazz Bakery in Los Angeles on Jan. 24-28.