The East West Quintet plays hard bop for the 21st Century, combining solid swing with smart writing, assured improvising, and a tight band sound. Unusual Customs is the group's debut CD, and it's a good one.
The East West Quintet's strongest suit is its rhythm section. Bassist Ben Campbell and drummer Matt Slocum lay down a comfortable carpet of cookin' motion and movement. Even when the improvisation flags, they keep the music churning ahead with reliable swing. Even the very fast tempo of "Romp Roast" sounds relaxed and effortless. And they don't overplay; there isn't a wasted note.
In fact, nobody overplays. There is an economical, uncluttered feel to all the improvisation here. However, there are moments when the solos sound like they've stalled a bit, when the relaxation is probably just tentativeness. Overall, these young musicians sound best at medium or medium-up tunes such as the blues "Piston Honda," on which alto saxophonist Dylan Heaney fashions a cagey, stutter-stepping improvisation marked by thoughtful use of hesitation, space, and riffs.
Throughout, Heaney is a consistently interesting musician. He has a tart tone that sounds a bit sweeter on ballads. On faster tracks Heaney seems to nibble at the edges of his notes, as if experimenting with intonation in the manner of Ornette Coleman or Jackie McLean. Guitarist Simon Kafka has a clean, ringing tone. At fast tempos, he tends to be somewhat repetitive. Pianist Mike Cassedy is consistently effective.
The other strong suit of this band is the writing. All the musicians except Slocum contribute material. The writing is clever and varied, and each original has an attractive melody. The ballad "Joys And Sorrows" is especially heartfelt.
Make no mistake, Unusual Customs is a good record. But it is one of many such discs afloat in the new mainstream; its hip swing and solid writing are strong virtues, but not singular ones.
Personnel: Dylan Heaney: alto saxophone; Simon Kafka: guitar; Mike Cassedy: piano; Ben Campbell:
bass; Matt Slocum: drums.