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Four into Four, recorded live at NYC’s Roulette, with its sense of swing and tight rhythms, gives the impression that the Billy Lester Quartet can see for miles, but then those who stand on the shoulders of giants can. Pianist Lester is a self-admitted anachronism who during the ‘50s and ‘60s, while piano jazz evolved modally along the route charted by Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner, became a Powell/Tristano and Louis Armstrong devotee. His writing style turns a jazz standard, through chord manipulation and inversion, into new music with fresh improvisations and harmonies. Add to this the dexterously agile trumpet of Simon Wettenhall and this live gig becomes well worth preserving.
The disc’s title is a clever allusion to the 4/4 time signature championed by Tristano and adhered to by the compact rhythm section of bassist Sean Smith and drummer Russ Meissner. While Smith keeps things pumping at a quick pace on these five extended cuts, Meissner is more of a random variable not averse to throwing his bandmates a percussive curve. Such is the case on “Person-L,” based on Gershwin’s “Somebody Loves Me,” as Meissner sets up the changes for creative Lester and Wettenhall solo exchanges. Both frontmen expertly explore their melodic lines but in doing so set up a tenuous tension that makes for interesting repartee that can occur at lightning speed. Lester melodically clips along on “Grasshopper’s Holiday,” hardly pausing as he unobtrusively slips in some antimelodic phrases, before he hands the reins over to Wettenhall, who trumpets his way through some decidedly boppish runs. The remaining cuts continue this precise interplay with Meissner playing all over his drums when given the spotlight. The setting provides fertile ground for Lester’s inventive stylings as he shows that Four can go into Four innumerable ways.