This album could be called “The Miami Saxophone Quartet Plus,” as every member of the synchronous South Florida-based group doubles (and sometimes triples) on other instruments, and there are talented guest artists on three of the seven selections. Like most such groups, the MSQ is very much into rich tonal colors and intricate harmonic schemes interlaced with suitable improvisations.
The open-handed concert, taped at the University of Florida in Coral Gables, embraces compositions by Pat Metheny, Chucho Valdes, Paul Simon, Thad Jones, Jelly Roll Morton and John Coltrane, along with group member Gary Lindsay’s “Scenes from the ‘Hood,” inspired by Leonard Bernstein’s award-winning score for the Broadway musical West Side Story.
I was especially pleased to note the inclusion of pianist Phillip Strange on Jones’s “A Child Is Born,” bassist Chuck Bergeron and drummer David Hardman on “Scenes,” and percussionist Richard Bravo on Valdez’ “Mambo Influenciado.” It’s not that I don’t appreciate saxophone quartets, but more than an hour of them without some rhythmic counterpoint can be taxing, to say the least.
The MSQ avoids that trap by varying the instrumental palette and seeing to it that its guests aren’t merely window-dressing but an essential part of the numbers on which they perform, thanks to Lindsay’s innovative charts (he arranged everything but Morton’s playful “Black Bottom Stomp,” which was scored by Fred Sturm). Bergeron and Hardman are not only present on “Hood,” they are very much the headliners—and it’s hard to envision “A Child Is Born” without Strange’s delicate piano voicings enhancing its sublime melodic framework.
The concert opens with Metheny’s radiant “Sunlight,” played by the quartet alone. Bravo adds Latin intensity to the rhythmic “Mambo Influenciado,” while Simon’s gospel-tinged “Still Crazy After All These Years” is scored for alto, two tenors and baritone, “A Child Is Born” for piano, winds and Mike Brignola’s bewitching bass clarinet. Morton’s “Black Bottom” is sheer ragtime-based diversion for the quartet, and Coltrane’s classic “Giant Steps,” in Lindsay’s words, emphasizes “our unique personalities through the concept of four independent voices, a concept more akin to string quartet writing.”
Whatever the concept, it works, and that’s what counts. In fact, there’s nothing on this well-designed and superbly performed concert date that is less than rewarding. If saxophone quartets push your button or light your fire, you can’t go wrong with this one.