New York Standards Quartet continues to display its oblique mastery of familiar songs

You can tell from the first track of "Heaven Steps to Seven," the New York Standards Quartet's jokily
The New York Standards Quartet specializes in reorienting familiar tunes.
titled new recording, just what the four have in mind with some well-known tunes from the American jazz and popular songbooks.

Track 1 is also a Leonard Bernstein centennial tribute as it subjects "Tonight" from "West Side Story" to the NYSQ's signature treatment of well-known tunes (the ones from the jazz catalogue will be less familiar to the mainstream listener) in new ways.

Listening in order, you can quickly get a dose of the jazz-standards side of the quartet. First there's a bop-centered run through Charlie Parker's "Cheryl," focused on saxophonist Tim Armacost at first, with Gene Jackson's steady, splashy drumming gradually joined by bassist Ugonna Okegwo (since the recording he's been replaced by  Daiki Yasukagawa), then pianist David Berkman.

Great American Songbook standards like "If I Should Lose You"  are especially susceptible to NYSQ arrangements, in that conventional harmonies provide a familiar launching pad. You can call up the standard chord progressions in your memory of other performances, but here altered harmonies rule the roost. The jumpiness of this arrangement reverts to a relaxed four-to-the-bar swing once the piano solo starts. But the mediated vision of this song remains with you.

Sometimes an arrangement will put accents in different places, but they usually seem logical. A case in point is Cole Porter's "Every Time We Say Goodbye," with its four successive accents on the ending of the song's first two phrases (e.g., "I die a little," with every syllable except "I" emphasized).

Two complaints: Although a standout in Bud Powell's "I'll Keep Loving You," on Porter's "I Love You," Okegwo's bass is underrecorded; secondly, Gene Jackson's typical emphasis on cymbals seems excessive in Horace Silver's "Peace," but is just right on the concluding track, Herbie Hancock's "Eye of the Hurricane." Moreover, as if to make up for past obscurity, the bass comes through fine behind Berkman's enchanting solo during the disc's affectionate farewell.

This quartet is learned in the best sense of the term. The musicians, led by the boldness of Berkman and Armacost, know the tradition thoroughly. (No one will miss the CD title's pun on Miles Davis' landmark version of Victor Feldman's "Seven Steps to Heaven.") What they bring to it is always refreshing without verging into bizarre novelty.


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