The word retro is almost too new-school when dealing with the stylistic expressions of tenor saxophonist Ari Ambrose. His efforts on Whatever Happens reveal a throwback to the sounds of the tenor players of the ’30s and pre-bop era of the ’40s, when Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Chu Berry and Don Byas ruled the roost, mostly in the big bands of the time.
Although largely bypassing references to bop, hard-bop, etc., Ambrose, on his eighth leader date for SteepleChase, has found a way to adapt his playing so it fits neatly with the more modern direction of his rhythm section: pianist George Colligan, bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Billy Drummond. Opening with the Lucky Thompson tune “No More,” the tenorist offers a sensitive reading that holds some of the earmarks of the Thompson sound. The rest of the way through older standards, Johnny Mandel’s “Emily” and three Ambrose originals, the leader plays with a quality that will remind listeners of Bean, Ben and Lester. The smooth, relaxed feel of his tenor work, while perhaps old-school, shows plenty of technical skill and creative flair. He spices up his solos with occasional flurries of notes that aren’t exactly within his stylistic zone but somehow seem to fit nicely. Colligan doesn’t play with his usual adventurous edge but keeps everything together within the rhythm team.
With so many of the young tenor voices continuing to follow John Coltrane or Sonny Rollins or turning toward free-form abstraction, it’s refreshing to find Ambrose employing the tradition, taking it back and bringing it forward. If nothing else, he, Mark Turner, Ned Goold, Chris Byars and even Scott Hamilton are offering something different in what often seems to be a world of clones.