Multi-instrumentalist Noah Baerman was born with an incurable connective tissue disorder known as Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. Ripples is his feel-good way of sidestepping sympathy and getting us focused on his work. It parlays a heightened awareness for people in strife with an ambitious desire for multifaceted musical expression.
Since 2012, Baerman has been Artistic Director of Resonant Motion, Inc., an organization tying music to social causes. He also formed the Jazz Samaritan Alliance, comprised of artists who work on socially conscious music. Among his eight prior albums is a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther Jr.
It all sounds like a road earnestly paved with good intentions, and those fears of “Up With People”-style banality are realized on the opening track to Ripples, “Time Is Now,” which is replete with relentlessly cheerful vocals and a faux-snazzy arrangement.
Fortunately, that’s the nadir. Most of the rest of Ripples makes shrewd use of Baerman’s top-drawer cohorts, while Baerman himself emerges as a composer-performer with a particular knack for stylishly funky hard-bop and buttery chamber-jazz balladry. “Motherless” borrows from the “Motherless Child” spiritual but is better appreciated for the expansive solo space accorded vibraphonist Chris Dingman and alto saxophonist Kris Allen (both unaccompanied) followed by spirited runs from tenor saxophonist Jimmy Greene and Baerman on B3 organ.
Ripples brims with bittersweet tributes. “Peeling the Onion,” for a member of his wife’s family battling incurable lung cancer, is loaded with masterfully percussive beats from bassist Linda Oh, drummer Johnathan Blake and Dingman, while Baerman breaks out a slide guitar solo. “Lester,” about a foster care child whose eventual adoption into a loving family didn’t prevent him from suicide (“for our society to evolve, we must find the strength and compassion not to look away,” Baerman writes in the liner notes), is a sprightly number anchored by a glorious bop workout from the venerable pianist Kenny Barron, Baerman’s teacher at Rutgers. There is also estimable work from Baerman’s standing trio of a decade, bassist Henry Lugo and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza, on three tracks, and four songs featuring a chamber quintet. Ripples dares to celebrate whenever and however possible. The connective tissue problems in Baerman’s body don’t extend to his muse.