Grand Central: A Beautiful Friendship (2004)
Grand Central's debut album A Beautiful Friendship features a young acoustic quartet playing "the essence of jazz" on a diverse set of originals and standards with a cohesion suggesting they've been at it for years. Maybe that should be no surprise since they generally already have impressive composing and performance resumes, but they're also not firmly rooted in stuffy tradition. Recent albums by tenor saxophonist Javier Arau, for example, include a children's collection recorded with his wife, an India-influenced meditation set and a score from a movie about a trumpeter's mid-life crisis.
The group touts the compositional abilities of its players and the hooks on the album's four originals are indeed a cut above so many albums where the main intent seems to blow through them and get to the solos. The extra effort also provides a superior foundation upon which to build improvisations.
Arau's "Missouri Blues" toys with the edges of funk and fusion, and he puts grit into his tone to match, but ultimately he and pianist Chris Mueller rely on a progression of rapid mainstream passages to fill the gaps instead of just turning the dial up to eleven, so to speak. "Paper Train" travels at a furious bop/swing pacemost of the time, anywaywhere bassist Chris Marolf and drummer Gabe Gloege also show more thoughtfulness than raw fire. All four explore beyond the basics, but never staying so far it wanders into free jazz or avant-garde territory.
Mueller's ballad "Theme For A Maiden" finds Arau shifting to a delicate, almost brittle voice, but he and Mueller continue offering colorful style counterpunches instead of relying on lyricism to carry them. Comparisons to Branford Marsalis might be appropriate in diversity of tone and approach, if not necessarily their playing.
Other songs are generally worthwhile, although at a total of 37 minutes this album is definitely on the short side. Sarah Gromko's husky vocals are a solid contribution on "You Don't Know What Love Is," delivering an upper-echelon, if a bit conservative, change of setting. "Lucky Luke" is a Brazilian ballad that retains interest thanks to enough edges to keep it from slipping into lounge fodder. The opening "Paper Train" is a marvelous bit of modern composition, shifting tempos and styles throughout, and giving everyone a chance to contribute a few of their more immediately gratifying moments.
Grand Central isn't the new big thing in jazz, but it's not trying to be. The players appear content to simply play good music based on strong roots, which will always find an appreciate audience long after the latest groove passes into obscurity.
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Track Listing: Paper Train; Theme For A Maiden; Missouri Blues; Lucky Luke; A Beautiful Friendship; You Don't Know What Love Is
Personnel: Javier Arau, tenor sax; Chris Mueller, piano; Chris Marolf, bass; Gabe Gloege, drums; Sarah Gromko, vocals on "You Don't Know What Love Is"