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Album Review: 'Unstandard' by the New York Standards Quartet

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New York Standards Quartet Unstandard
Courtesy of Challenge Records
Having recently reviewed a lot of progressive jazz and new music, I was excited to check out The New York Standards Quartet’s Unstandard (Challenge Records, 2011) this month. Familiar with pianist David Berkman through his work as a leader and pedagogue, and with Gene Jackson’s impressive pedigree with such seminal leaders as Herbie Hancock and Dave Holland, the personnel of Unstandard piqued my interest.

The album’s concept is simple: performance of jazz standards that emphasizes interpretation and playfulness. “How High the Moon” gets a modal hook and a reharmonization, as does “All the Things You Are,” but both familiar melodies remain intact. Other tunes get a more adventurous approach. “Lunar” is a contrafact of Miles Davis’ “Solar,” whose changes only become recognizable three minutes into the tune, when Berkman’s comping provides context for Tim Armacost’s high-energy solo. “Stablemates” shows a great sense of dramatic arc, Jackson’s drum solo giving way to a modulation into the last bars of the melody. I was less taken with the trickling, out-of-time interpretation of “But Beautiful,” which felt homogeneous, though a nice stylistic counterpoint to the rest of the album.

Throughout the album, I was mesmerized by Berkman’s piano solos, which employed repetition and sequences to great effect. Extremely refreshing are his three vignettes on “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” sprinkled throughout the album. Each is a rubato solo, no longer than a minute, providing depth and context for the surrounding material. The “Beamlets” tie the album together, and show that NYSQ is interested in creating something more than a mere collection of tunes.

Attending jam sessions around the city, I’m usually impressed with the quality of soloing, but disappointed with the wham-bang aesthetic so often applied to standards. Unstandard is an answer to this dilemma: a collection of standards not only beautifully interpreted, but carefully assembled. Here’s hoping that NYSQ’s approach to the jazz canon serves as inspiration for jazz musicians worldwide.

Release Date:

2011 on Challenge Records

Personnel:

  • David Berkman – Piano
  • Tim Armacost – Saxophone
  • Yosuke Inoue – Bass
  • Gene Jackson – Drums

Track List:

  1. How High the Moon
  2. Polka Beamlet #1
  3. All the Things You Are
  4. Polka Beamlet #2
  5. Stablemates
  6. But Beautiful
  7. Lunar
  8. Interplay
  9. Two Meetings
  10. Thy Ballet Girl Stirs (by Starlight)
  11. After Thought
  12. Summer Night
  13. Polka Beamlet #3
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