After a few years of knocking about in New York City's jazz underground, the Nick Hempton Band is getting a toehold in venues like Smalls, Zinc Bar, and Fat Cat. Hempton's satirical account of the rigors of a "combined eight hours of work in a single month" is posted on the band's website in an entry dated 6/9/09. Throughout a self-titled debut recording, they're an unusually sharp, cohesive unit. Stylistically speaking, Hempton and his cohorts operate in the bop-to-hard bop continuum, with an emphasis on deft swing, percolating Latin rhythms and, in a cover of Joe Henderson's "Serenity," a touch of backbeat funk.
's piano, the band's success hinges on Marco Panascia and Dan Aran, one of the better young bass and drums teams in recent memory. From ballads to burners, they keep things moving without any fuss or strain. In tandem with Aran's shuffle beat, Panascia's walking line animates Hirahara's second chorus on "The Artful Roger." Aran's winning combination of march beats and Latin rhythms set the pace for the driving "I'm A Nurse, I'm An Engineer."
Hempton penned five of the disc's eight tracks. He has a knack for writing concise melodies and placing them in frameworks that aren't overly familiar or too simplistic. In addition to Hempton's alto sax and Art Hirahara
To Hempton's credit, he never catapults over or distances himself from the rhythm section. On "The Artful Roger," he lets the band shine through while easing into a solo that seems to expand measure by measure. During "The Times," Hempton carefully weighs phrases, and amidst Aran's peppery Latin rhythms and Hirahara's vigorous comping, he gradually turns up the heat. The acerbic quality of his tone softens on a knowing rendition of the melody of Benny Carter's "Lonely Woman."
Hirahara, too, is no slouch when it comes to staying in the pocket created by the bass and drums. Perfectly matching the depth of Panascia's and Aran's straightforward swing, his "Serenity" solo creates a logical, satisfying course, and builds tension by gradually moving from the lower to the upper ends of the keyboard. Luxuriating in a medium tempo waltz groove, during "Trivia," Hirahara concocts melodies by way of combination of chords and single notes; and when Panascia begins to walk, the pianist's phrases become longer and more loquacious.
To those who believe that the pleasures derived from straight-ahead jazz are limited to recordings made decades ago, the Nick Hempton Band is heartily recommended. It's one of those rare recordings that seems to get better with every listening.
Personnel: Nick Hempton: alto saxophone; Art Hirahara: piano; Marco Panascia: bass;
Dan Aran: drums.