NYConnection – Urban Griot
(JASKAA CD004. CD Review by Andy Boeckstaens)
New York-based Israeli pianist Roy Assaf formed a trio with Finnish drummer Jaska Lukkarinen after meeting him in New York in 2007. Following a couple of personnel changes, NYConnection evolved into the quartet showcased here. All four musicians are in their 30s and – despite limited opportunities to play together – sound like a long-standing, regular working band.
As for the title of the CD, Assaf explains that “Urban” comes from the folk sound that some audiences pick up on, and “Griot” represents the group’s jazz background and sophistication. Actually I don’t hear much folk here, although the music is carefully considered and generally played at low volume.
The title track is typical. It is dedicated by Assaf to Dr Billy Taylor, who was one of his teachers at the Kennedy Center Betty Carter Jazz Ahead Program. He says, “I wanted to write a piece that will capture his beautiful touch, sensibility and elegant approach on the piano.” It exudes confidence and a purposeful serenity.
The pianist continues, “We…look up to bands like the Wayne Shorter quartet…trying to achieve as much freedom as we can….searching for new directions every night”. His own playing demonstrates that, and incorporates audacious exploration within a relatively mainstream format. Furthermore, his writing is dramatic and shows a highly developed sense of form. Sisu starts slowly with piano and saxophone, and turns into a grand anthem. The hymnal Löyly somehow reflects its title, which refers to the feeling of bliss caused by the heat generated from throwing water onto the hot stones in a sauna.
At first I thought that Jussi Kannaste’s light tone was coming from an alto sax (at the start of Lukkarinen’s tune Inner Blur it could even be a soprano), but evidently he uses tenor throughout. His solo on Piki and the Mexican Grill is wholly satisfying, and during his composition Signal, a simple motif becomes a moving tour de force. There is both delicacy and a gravitas that bring to mind Joe Henderson.
Bassist Antti Lötjönen is rarely featured, but keeps the sometimes-difficult material on track. The role of Lukkarinen is equally critical. He contributes a couple of compositions, and – as an instrumentalist – handles straight time with a powerful swing and complex detail with panache.
In addition to the original tunes, there are re-workings of several jazz standards. Some are more oblique than others. The origin of Day of Night is obvious enough. But Have You Met Mr Jones? seems only tangentially related to Richard Rodgers’ frequently-heard classic. Days of (Too Much) Wine & Roses – an arrangement by Kannaste with an altered title that refers to the Finns’ liking for alcohol – is pitched somewhere between the two.
NYConnection avoid the manic post-bop that marks so much jazz these days, and Urban Griot glows with clarity and maturity.