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New York Standards Quartet: Unstandard

Larry Taylor By

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It's a pleasure when a group of great jazz players take American standards and reshape them with their own unique stamp. This happens on New York Standards Quartet's Unstandard, where the musical gambit—the direction these musicians take the originals—is often surprising.

Pianist David Berkman leads the way, handling arrangements and contributing originals, all the while taking impeccable solos. This is a joint effort, and veteran drummer Gene Jackson is invaluable, impressively powering the pace, aided by bassist Yosuke Inoue. The spotlight shines brightest, though, on Tim Armacost, whose forceful soprano and tenor saxophones anchor most pieces.

The clever adaptations begin with the opener, Morgan Lewis' "How High the Moon." On this, the soprano evokes an eerie, funereal feeling, before warming up; this is not the usual bright, bouncy treatment of this jazz staple.)

Likewise, the quartet's version of Jerome Kern's "All the Things You Are" takes advantage of the exotic effects a soprano can provide; a bow, here, to John Coltrane's pioneering work on thie instrument.

Berkman's "Lunar" is an intriguing deconstruction of Miles Davis' "Solar." After a brief exploration, it's possible to here the place in the late trumpet icon's jazz universe, with Berkman's probing piano the master guide.

Armacost puts his brand on Benny Golson's classic "Stablemates," which owes much to Sonny Rollins' tenor imprint. The composition, largely unrecognizable at first, soon becomes familiar and goes its atonal way.

Jimmy Van Heusen's ''But Beautiful," becomes pastoral here, with a rippling stream and waterfall effect created by flute, piano and cymbal.

The touchstone of the CD's creative excellence is in Berkman's rework of Victor Young's "Stella By Starlight," known here as "The Ballet Girl Stirs (By Starlight)." After a stunning tour de force opening on tenor, the piano comes to the fore. Near the end, Young's haunting melody asserts itself, which brings a satisfied recognition of what was previously felt subliminally.

Three charming vignettes on "Polka Dots and Moonbeams," each less than an minute, divide the play list, further evidence that Unstandard is not a usual series of the familiar.

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