Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The New York Standards Quartet To Release Heaven Steps To Seven

By the numbers the New York Standards Quartet (NYSQ) is downright impressive, touring and recording together for thirteen years, with six critically acclaimed recordings in its oeuvre. The band's seventh album, their first to be available on vinyl, and featuring bassist Ugonna Okegwo (a regular member for many of the band's U.S. tours), Heaven Steps To Seven, builds on the great success of their catalog (most recently, Sleight of Hand, The New Straight Ahead and Power of 10). Saxophonist Tim Armacost, pianist David Berkman, drummer Gene Jackson & double bassist Ugonna Okegwo once again offer the listener reimagined standards from the vast canon of jazz and the Great American Songbook that reflect the band's spontaneous, transformational approach. The band is a rarity; one that honors the tradition of this music, representing it authentically, but also creating environments which feel and sound new.

The NYSQ have come a long way in their thirteen years. Tim Armacost warmly acknowledges the closeness of the collaboration: "We all contribute suggestions for classic songs to reinterpret, and the music we conceive taps into the important values of the band - our longevity, our deep friendship. Sometimes we bring pretty much completed arrangements, others just evolve on the bandstand as we play."
Such a musical affinity, reaped from the vastness of their respective experiences in many different projects as leaders and sidemen, is distilled into a recording of remarkable finesse, once again refracting kaleidoscopic colors across old favorites and less familiar treasures from the jazz heritage. Having played together for so long, Armacost highlights two key facets: "One is to discover a beautiful standard you haven't heard before; the other is finding something well known, then portraying it differently. So we honor the tradition of this music, representing it authentically, but also creating environments which feel new."

Heaven Steps To Seven opens with the warm, inviting intro to "Tonight" (Leonard Bernstein, from "West Side Story"), before the band launches into the main theme at a medium-up tempo that drips of propulsion while being right in the pocket. "Cheryl" (by Charlie Parker, 1947) is given a magnificent facelift, almost disguising its blues form, as it becomes a vessel for group expeditions. Horace Silver's "Peace" (originally released on Silver's recording "Blowing The Blues Away" from 1959) is up next. This type of meditative ballad was an anomaly for the legendary pianist/composer/bandleader, and it is a fitting tribute to Silver that the NYSQ selected this gem from his repertoire, and rendered it with such love and care. It was "Charlie Parker With Strings" that brought "If I Should Lose You" (from the 1935 film "Rose of the Rancho") to the awareness of the jazz world (later recorded by Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Roy Haynes Mulgrew Miller, Hank Mobley and many others). In the hands of the NYSQ it becomes reborn as a tour-de-force, featuring Armacost's brilliant sound on soprano sax on top of the rhythm section that has the afterburners on. Following Armacost's solo, the band brings it down to earth for Berkman's harmonically sophisticated trip through the changes.

Side two of the album opens with Cole Porter's "Every Time We Say Goodbye" which debuted in 1944 in Porter's "Seven Lively Arts," so it's a nice choice for the NYSQ's seventh album. The band eschews the song's typical bouncy feel, instead opting to play it with a straight eighth note feel, instantly bringing the frequently recorded tune into the 21st century, and into the band's repertoire. Indeed, as they do with many tunes, this sounds as if they composed it. The guys stay on the Cole Porter track with "I Love You" (a hit song for Bing Crosby in 1944), featuring an attention-grabbing intro from bassist Ugonna Okegwo, and completely modernized by the band, in part because they play the "A" sections in nine! For the second ballad on Heaven Steps To Seven the band chose the lovely, "I'll Keep Loving You." It is played with such crystalline virtuosity that NYSQ's rendition stands tall when compared to versions by such legends as Bud Powell, Chick Corea and Tommy Flanagan. Heaven Steps To Seven closes with "Eye Of The Hurricane" which originally appeared on Herbie Hancock's fifth album, "Maiden Voyage" (recorded in 1965 for Blue Note Records). Drummer Gene Jackson toured with Hancock for many years beginning in the Fall of 1991, so is it any wonder that he "owns" this tune, as does the rest of the band in turn?           

NYSQ - Heaven Steps To Seven:
1 - Tonight (L. Bernstein)
2 - Cheryl (C. Parker)
3 - Peace (H. Silver)
4 - If I Should Lose You (R. Rainger/L. Robin)
5 - Every Time We Say Goodbye (C. Porter)
6 - I love You (C. Porter)
7 - I'll Keep Loving You (B. Powell)

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