Joe Farrell: Penny Arcade / Upon This Rock / Canned Funk

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A friend mentioned recently how much he liked Joe Farrell’s work with Chick Corea but then took me aback somewhat by expressing regret that Farrell hadn’t made any records of his own. I thought there had been enough review and reissue activity out there to alert him to better-known things like Moon Germs at least, if not to these slightly later CTIs. Still, he has the pleasure now of catching up on some of the quietly virtuosic jazz and funk Joseph Firrantello, as he started, put out there before ending much too soon, cut down at just 48 by the same grisly syndrome that took off Michael Brecker.

Farrell had already begun recording under his own name before his two year stint with Return to Forever. After he was replaced by Bill Connors and the group went high-energy, he recorded Penny Arcade, making his own transition out of straightahead (he’d replaced Wayne Shorter in Maynard Ferguson’s band when Wayne left to join the Messengers) and into a new, funk-driven style that paralleled Miles Davis’s appropriation of James Brown (and other more abstract sounds) into jazz.

Issued, like the other CTIs, with arresting artwork, Penny Arcade reels you in from the very first. The title track, written by Joe Beck, arrests from the beginning with a tenor and bass figure that Charles Waring in his liner note rightly aligns with the Average White Band’s “Pick Up the Pieces”, which had charted the year before. Farrell’s single didn’t go anywhere.

His own fondness for unison theme statements is evident on “Hurricane Jane”, a strange, roiling thing in 7/4, with some of Farrell’s best soprano playing of the session. His multi-instrumentalism is evident on “Cloud Cream”, a Latin idea which he takes unusually on piccolo. Herbie Hancock is still an important component of the band, but credit to Herb Bushler, on both acoustic and electric bass, and to Beck and Gadd, who’re mixed well up by Creed Taylor and Rudy Van Gelder. The only non-Farrell theme is Stevie Wonder’s “Too High”.

As I told my friend, I listen to Penny Arcade quite a lot – the vinyl’s still fine – but not so much to Upon This Rock and Canned Funk. I wonder why now. “Upon This Rock” itself is a mighty workout but it doesn’t arrive until the second side; Beck’s amazing on it, even though he can’t get his foot off the wah-wah, and Farrell’s soprano playing is reminiscent of much of what he did for RTF, only on aviation spirit rather than feather-power. “Seven Seas” is another cracker, perhaps the most boppish thing on this three-on-two, but still strongly rhythmic.

Canned Funk, the last he made for Taylor, sees Farrell retreading a lot of previous ideas, though he had the imagination and technique to make them sound fresh. “Animal” has a bit of baritone, effectively deployed. “Suite Martinique” is an attempt to recapture the weight of “Upon This Rock” and “Spoken Silence” sounds almost like what John Coltrane might have done if he’d lived another few years and dabbled in funk himself. A lot of great stuff here. How nice to be able to pick up on it for the first time, but also how good to be reminded that Farrell’s creativity didn’t falter until his health did.

Discography
CD1 [Penny Arcade] Penny Arcade; Too High; Hurricane Jane; Cloud Cream; Geo Blue; [Upon This Rock] Weathervane; I Won’t Be Back; Upon This Rock; Seven Seas (56.40)
CD2 [Canned Funk] Canned Funk; Animal; Suite Martinique; Spoken Silence (32.24)

(1) Farrell (ss, ts, picc, f); Herbie Hancock (p); Joe Beck (elg); Herb Bushler (b, elb); Steve Gadd (d); Don Alias (pc). Englewood Cliffs, NJ, October 1973.
(2) Farrell (ss, ts, f); Herbie Hancock (p on “I Won’t Be Back” only); Joe Beck (elg); Herb Bushler (b, elb); Jim Madison (d) except Steve Gadd (d on “I Won’t Be Back”); Don Alias (pc on “I Won’t Be Back”). Englewood Cliffs, October 1973 and March 1974.
(3) Farrell (ss, ts, bar, f); Beck (elg); Bushler (b, elb); Madison (d); Ray Mantilla (pc). Englewood Cliffs, NJ, December 1974.
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