Both solid and surprising, the Tucker Brothers Quartet proves itself a fully achieved ensemble at the Jazz Kitchen

Some of the buzz about "the new standard" has faded since Herbie Hancock made a valiant effort to show how current pop could add to the repertoire of usable standards for jazz musicians. It's still a lively issue: Can you mine the Great American Songbook forever, particularly when vocal versions of songs more or less as they were written are far from the center of the musical marketplace?

So it's understandably rewarding for young jazz musicians to keep their ears open for adaptable material by popular artists now active.

Adept guitarist-composer Joel Tucker
When imagination is applied to give a jazz vibe to a pop tune, as in  Joel Tucker's arrangement of Imogen Heap's "Closing In," the effort justifies itself. Only after I returned home from the Tucker Brothers Quartet's first set Wednesday night at the Jazz Kitchen did I become acquainted with the original song, thanks to YouTube.

Thinking back from Heap's recorded performance of her song to what I'd heard at the Kitchen, I admired what guitarist Tucker had done to make the tune feasible for the group he fronts along with his bassist brother Nick. He takes its defining rhythmic underpinning and lets some air into it.

A difficulty for me with contemporary pop is the excessive production layering, an obsession with texture and atmosphere, an insistence on covering the whole musical canvas edge to edge. The procedure turns every song into a brand, or at least a subsidiary of the artist's brand.  Jazz — particularly small-group jazz that's mainly acoustic — benefits from loose textures and distinct lines, with room for self-expression in both solos and ensemble

Tucker's arrangement of "Closing In" gets rid of what I hear as clutter, firms up the phrasing, and the ostinato he alters from the original has a forward momentum that replaces that static Cuisinart quality I find so annoying in pop music, where everything kind of jiggles and thumps in a stationary froth.  Near the end of this band's performance of the tune, three-fourths of the quartet stated the repeated phrase as backdrop and energizer to a showcase for drummer Brian Yarde.

Nick Tucker is the new "everybody's bassist" around town.
Perfect —  and then it was back to taking care of old business: a set-ending jaunt through Wes Montgomery's "Road Song." After a Nick Tucker launch, saxophonist Sean Imboden and the guitarist shared the theme between them. Joel Tucker had picked up his hollow-body guitar again, played much of his solo in octaves, and really stretched out to pay tribute to Indianapolis' own guitar hero. Brother Nick's solo dug deep, getting fraternal support that punctuated the bassist's soulful thoughts.

This band consists of four individualists who seem thoroughly attuned to one another. They dealt imperturbably with the high level of audience noise throughout much of the set.  They didn't have to play everything loud, fortunately. A moody piece like "Nine Is the Magic Number" (also the title of the group's forthcoming CD, expected in time for Indy Jazz Fest) unfolded like somber processional music, ending in an effective diminuendo. For churning energy and a theme featuring a close-order arpeggio drill, there was an exciting Joel Tucker original, "Ouroboros," named for the mythical tail-biting snake that symbolizes the cyclical view of history.

The brothers know how to design a set for contrast and complementarity. "East of the Sun" was neatly troweled in between two of Joel Tucker's pieces. It included some elegant playing by Imboden, and when the guitar solo drifted for a while into dreamy triplets, Yarde was right with him.

This is a band that never seems to coast. Too often you'll hear the outchorus of a standard played in a routine manner, but this one had some imaginative new ideas. None of the members, including the drummer,  shies away from attention to melody. They are alive to the framework of each piece in the book, but they don't abdicate the responsibility of filling it with something tuneful and catchy.

[Photos by Mark Sheldon]


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