The New York Standards Quartet – The New Straight Ahead
(Whirlwind Recordings WR4654 . CD Review by Alison Bentley)
The CD cover is a clue: the deadpan title is The New Straight Ahead but the arrows point in every direction. The New York Standards Quartet are known for what their sax-player Tim Armacost calls ‘twisted’ arrangements of well-known jazz tunes. The tunes, they say, are ‘blank slates to write on.’ The band are all composers in their own right, and have worked with a dazzling number of famous jazz names. They formed in 2006 to perform the jazz they grew up learning, and they play with great warmth and intelligence.
The album opens and closes with Intro (Polka Dots) and Outro (Moonbeams), minute-long slices of luscious sax solo, picking up where their 2011 album Unstandard left off, with its three Polka Beamlets. While the previous album has more original pieces based on familiar chords, this new recording shuffles the chords and time signatures behind the melodies to create something fresh.
Some pieces have a fairly straight treatment: Monk’s Misterioso has playfully bluesy solos from Armacost and David Berkman’s piano. Japanese bassist Daiki Yasukagawa has such clarity of thought, and an opulent tone. Parker’s Ah-leu-cha keeps close to the original’s inventive countermelodies, but sounds more cool-school and Konitz-esque. Gene Jackson is that most musical of drummers: his solo is so full of rich textures, it’s as if he’s playing several melodies simultaneously. Hancock’s The Maze is given a Coltrane Impressions-like edge, the fast minor swing and Armacost’s tough-toned tenor bursting out of the sinewy bass solo. Berkman’s superb comping sketches in new notes, pushing things almost over the edge but always pulling back.
Some tunes play around with rhythm. Autumn Leaves has a Sidewinder slinky groove and scrunchy piano cluster chords. Remember leans heavily on the Hank Mobley swing version, but throws in some 7/4 bars to keep things moving. You can hear the whole band shifting subtly in response to each other. Jobim’s Zingaro, more often known as Retrato em branco e reto, is played colla voce- Armacost’s tenor is the voice, and you can almost hear words in his exquisite melancholy phrasing. Even his solo follows the contours of the tune. The cymbals are like waves and the piano arpeggios are the undertow, and the time is completely free.
Harmonies are redecorated too. When You Wish Upon a Star opens with full-bodied chords from Berkman, Bill Evans-like but becoming increasingly less sweet as the tune develops and the rest of the band join him at slow ballad tempo. There’s a hypnotic ostinato bass line as tenor and piano swap phrases dreamily with elegance and beauty. It Don’t Mean a Thing is the biggest surprise, as the unexpected chords touch the melody tangentially- the tune sounds familiar but also completely different. Armacost’s plaintive soprano climbs and then dips down in swift arpeggios. Berkman’s piano solo really holds your attention with its wit and feeling.
This is wonderful modern jazz, played with profound love for the tradition, brilliance and humour.