Wednesday, June 14, 2017

CD review: 'Straight-ahead' jazz is capable of a fresh approach to the well-known past

At the imaginative forefront of NYSQ: Tim Armacost
Complaints that there's too much recycling in jazz, in part the product of the separation of some players into "contemporary" or smooth jazz, plus marketing favoritism toward vocalists, plus a wealth of tribute concerts and CDs   — all have contributed to a perception of the music's balkanization in a sprawling village of gated communities.

But the agenda of the New York Standards Quartet moves free of the retread stigma and dead-end vistas. The "standards" it specializes in aren't simply treated to serial disquisitions on a tune's chord changes. Instead, the seasoned ensemble — Tim Armacost, saxophones; David Berkman, piano; Daiki Yasukagawa, bass; Gene Jackson, drums — reimagines the tunes to make them fit the personalities of the players and the rapport they unfailingly display as a unit.

At least that's the case on "Sleight of Hand," a new release on Whirlwind Recordings, poised to be released about a month before a busy July schedule of touring Japan, the bassist's homeland. A follow-up to the group's "Power of 10," "'Sleight of Hand" gets its name from the disc's one original, written by the pianist. And even that is a shirttail descendant of Gershwin's "But Not for Me."

From the start, the quartet's resourcefulness and depth of connection to these tunes are evident. Mal Waldron's "Soul Eyes" shows Armacost and Berkman at their most fluent and imaginative at a rapid tempo. The mellow side of the NYSQ is brought into play with "I Fall in Love Too Easily," with Armacost's soprano sax sitting out the first chorus before making the most of a delayed entrance. Jackson's drums are quite the spur for an increase in the tempo after the regret implied in the song's title has been fully addressed.

An inviting bass cadenza launches Hank Mobley's "This I Dig of You" attractively. Armacost is at his most forceful in a tenor solo, exhibiting a classic bop style, quite personalized. Berkman is outstanding during his turn in the spotlight.  There's a nifty drum solo before the outchorus.

Indications of the attentiveness the NYSQ pays to its arrangements can be summed up by the lovely "Detour Ahead," with its sensitive coda. Even the fadeout ending (never a favorite device of mine) seems appropriate for "Lover Man," unconventionally fast-paced, the rhythm section alone having taken care of business at first.

This simpatico group, without becoming stodgy about it, is unabashedly precise and intentional about putting its own stamp on the jazz and pop standards that are its mother lode. If it occupies a cul-de-sac, it's one that many listeners won't hesitate to visit.