It's now approaching twelve years since the New York Standards Quartet (NYSQ) came into being, its core personnel taking time out from their multifarious individual projects to revel in the shared brief of refashioning familiar and lesser- known jazz standards. Their new release Sleight of Hand builds on their catalog of five previous albums (most recently, The New Straight Ahead and Power of 10, on Whirlwind) as saxophonist Tim Armacost, pianist David Berkman and drummer Gene Jackson welcome double bassist Daiki Yasukagawa back into the fold.
Describing the NYSQ's beginnings, David Berkman recalls: "We were at the period where we'd all done a lot of original recordings of our own music, as composers and leaders; and then, through a series of circumstances, we came together as a quartet with the particular mission of taking on standards, but arranging them to create a feeling that was similar to the original albums we recorded. It soon became apparent that audiences really got into the idea and the fun of seeing how we would expand the harmonic, tonal and rhythmic aspects into a more modern frame while always referencing the music's origins." This carries into the thematic approach for Sleight of Hand. Tim Armacost explains further, "the album title refers to the four of us, conjuring transformations of standards and enjoying the magic of creating something new out of that repertoire; really exploring the group's alchemy and chemistry, achieved through twelve years of touring and recording together."
This is a band that regularly plays and performs together, so there's a common bond, which brings out the best in the arrangements they conjure. Recorded at the end of an international tour - in the beautiful, mountainous location of Lake Yamanaka, close to Mount Fuji (the quartet enjoys a special affinity with Japan) - Sleight of Hand's eight numbers reflect the band's spontaneous, transformational approach, with the title track (based on Gershwin's 'But Not For Me') irresistibly playful.
Mal Waldron's 'Soul Eyes' and Thelonious Monk's 'Ask Me Now' swing with respective vibrancy and jauntiness, while the metrical changes and perky rhythms of 'This I Dig of You' pick up on Hank Mobley's classic Blue Note album origins; and the various key modulations in 'Lover Man' are a world away from Billie Holiday's lingering vocal lines as Armacost's spritely soprano responds swiftly to Jackson's syncopated drum accents.
1940s song 'Detour Ahead' - perhaps mostly familiar in composer Herb Ellis's guitar setting - translates into a luscious tenor and piano-led ballad, sensitively buoyed by Yasukagawa's bass shaping; Jules Styne/Sammy Cahn favorite 'I Fall In Love Too Easily' is treated to sparkling, percussion-led animation; and Armacost's rich tenor lyricism in Duke Ellington's 'In a Sentimental Mood' is ravishingly restrained.
David Berkman relates that the NYSQ's journey continues to energize them: "Going into the recording studio is still as challenging as it is enjoyable, though I guess we feel like we don't need to prove anything anymore! And though we like to pull out obscure tunes, it's also important to include touchstones for our listeners, as everyone relates to them emotionally - there's still a lot of awareness there. These are such great melodies, you can do almost anything with them - and, as always with improvisation, that sense of 'What's happening today?' remains exciting. It's all about a moment."
NYSQ SLEIGHT OF HAND TOUR DATES:
12th annual tour of Japan in support of Sleight of Hand:
July 13 - RAG, Kyoto
July 14-Azul, Osake
July 15-JB-5, Kobe
July 16-Cafe Soho, Okayama
July 19-So Nice, Takamatsu
July 20-Bird, Hiroshima
July 21-Jazz Society, Iwakuni
July 22-Seagaia Jazz Festival, Miyazaki
July 23-Doji House, Suzuka
July 28-Body and Soul, Tokyo
July 29-NHK Radio Broadcast, Tokyo
July 30-Yumeya, Gunma
August 1-Lifetime, Shizuoka