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The Humanity Quartet: Humanity

Dr. Judith Schlesinger By

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This release is from four veteran, first-call jazz instrumentalists who are all concerned about the worldwide loss of humanity (hence, the title of both the quartet and the CD), and wanted to demonstrate what can happen when grown-ups truly connect. As co-producer, bassist, and composer Sean Smith explains in his articulate and passionate liners, ..."the Humanity Quartet represents a fresh sharing of ideas and feelings that bring people together in an increasingly divided world." While neither he nor the others are naive or grandiose enough to claim they can actually change the world with this release, the fact that they exemplify and celebrate the dimming values of cooperation, joy, freedom, and mutual respect is nothing to sneer at or diminish.

Happily, their earnest sincerity is matched by the consistent excellence of this music. Sean Smith is a prolific and brilliant composer whose tunes are completely original, yet always seem vaguely familiar, because they contain such logical melodies; at the same time, there are always surprises, as things often go in unpredictable and delightful directions. Seven of the songs are his; three are by a leading light of the tenor saxophone, Joel Frahm, who is also a fine and witty composer.

All are characterized by their "indelible emphasis on swing, melody, and form," which places them squarely and unabashedly in a traditional jazz context. And with decades of experience between them—the others are the incomparable drummer/percussionist Leon Parker and "the premier guitarist of his era," Peter Bernstein—this is a rare, high-level ride from beginning to end. And not a flaring ego in sight.

It's difficult to pinpoint the exceptional tracks here, since each of the ten is a fully-realized gem all by itself, warmly recorded and expertly mixed. The CD also works beautifully in sequence, moving gracefully from swing to ballad to samba, as the quartet creates space and star turns for everyone. But a few specifics help to understand why this CD gets the highest possible rating, one which is carefully meted out, and only reserved for the superb "desert island" discs that come along so infrequently.

For one thing, all-original recordings have a tendency to be problematic. Most singers and instrumentalists spend much of their career interpreting other peoples' music, and their satisfaction is understandable when they finally release a project completely devoted to their own compositions. The problem here is that none of them has the timeless melodic gifts of, say, a Johnny Mandel, Cole Porter or Steven Sondheim, and too few even come close. But it's no exaggeration to state that the Humanity Quartet belongs in that exclusive ballpark, offering such fresh, tuneful, and well-played songs that they already sound as if they're standards.

Finally, Humanity is also deliberately paced to provide a satisfying journey from one track to the next, a sadly fading pleasure when people pluck individual songs off the Web, and may therefore lose any careful connection between them. But then, not every project is as masterful (in every sense of the word) as this one.

Track Listing: A Good Thing; Song for a New Day; Irving; End of the Line; Humanity; Samba for Evandrea; A Whole New You; Tears; Jobimiola; Spring Standard.

Personnel: Joel Frahm: tenor saxophone; Peter Bernstein: guitar; Sean Smith: bass; Leon Parker: drums, percussion (6), embodirhythm (6); Marya Lawrence: vocal (6).

Title: Humanity | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: Cellar Live Records

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