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Blue Divide-- Rob Derke & The NYJAZZ Quartet

Rob Derke's NY JAZZ Quartet is a performing arm of the NYJAZZ Initiative, a non-profit organization that seeks "to build audiences and further Jazz Arts" and thus "designs and conducts programs for thousands of students in New York City and around the country." It's fitting that three of the four members of the quartet heard on this CD received at least part of their musical educations through New York City institutions, Derke and Eric McPherson having graduated from LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts, and Derke and Carlo De Rosa having degrees from the Manhattan School of Music. Unlike the 2011 Mad About Thad release from a larger 10-piece NYJAZZ Initiative ensemble, which focused on the compositions of trumpeter Thad Jones, this quartet date mostly contains significant originals from Derke and De Rosa. Among the impressions made by the music on Blue Divide are that Derke deserves to be considered among the best soprano saxophonists in jazz today, that Cuban-born pianist Aruán Ortiz is a dynamic up-and-comer (with already six CDs as a leader), that De Rosa is a powerhouse virtuoso bassist, and that McPherson (15 years with Jackie McLean) is a most meticulous and nuanced drummer.

On the opening "Prelude," Derke and De Rosa converse obliquely, soon joined by McPherson's mallets and Ortiz' atonal clusters, all then smartly and seamlessly emerging as De Rosa's "Pasillo Azul," with Derke delineating the bluesy and catchy line. Ortiz gradually develops a head of steam in his cleverly paced solo, urged on by De Rosa' persistent bass and McPherson's actively changing textures. Derke's improv displays his clear, well-rounded tone, assured technique, and wealth of ideas. De Rosa's aggressive approach continues on in his breakneck but always lucid statement. "Davey's Dreams" is Derke's tribute to one of his teachers, Davey Schildkraut, the formidable but unheralded saxophonist who played with Miles Davis and Stan Kenton, among others. The offbeat, unpredictable theme is reminiscent of Herbie Nichol's works, capturing and holding one's attention, as does Derke's fluttering and convoluted assessment, which, thanks to Ortiz' comping style on this track, makes the pair sound much like Steve Lacy with Mal Waldron. Ortiz own solo is indeed Waldron-like in its dissonance-laden, forceful attack, and De Rosa's creative turn exhibits great technical command.

"Dispossession" was inspired by Derke's travels in the Middle East, where he saw first hand the conflicts resulting from the "dispossession" of native peoples from their land, and a certain tension pervades the piece's performance. The foursome are all spiky and/or jabbing during the intro, and the staccato hard bop theme maintains the mood. Ortiz and Derke alternate devastatingly incisive solo passages, with De Rosa and McPherson establishing a fervidly driven rhythmic current. The drummer gets to spread his wings a bit over Ortiz' vamp before Derke's concise reprise. "Knowing" is a reflective De Rosa tune with a wafting melody endearingly portrayed by Derke prior to the composer's adamantly lyrical improv. Derke's own solo has a spiraling structure that he diversifies by altering his rhythmic impetus. He and Ortiz eagerly hook up once again, this time contrapuntally on an out chorus that regrettably fades away much too soon. The leader's "G's Waltz," for his daughter Gabriella, exudes a childlike wonder and innocence, and the soprano saxophonist's solo possesses a carefree, charming persona that still does not hide its inherent artistry. Ortiz excels in both supporting and leading roles here, with a glistening, surging flight that is propelled along by De Rosa and McPherson's unyielding teamwork.

Herbie Hancock's "Still Time" comes from the 1986 film Round Midnight, with Dexter Gordon in the starring role, a production that made a lasting impression on then student Derke and other young musicians upon its release (he first met McPherson that same year). Ortiz' pensive intro first draws you in, and then Derke's glowing treatment of the melody does the rest. Ortiz contributes a solo of sublime delicacy and feeling, to which Derke responds with a little more bite but no less warmth. If ever there was a tune entitled to wider attention and adoption, this is it. Derke personally observed the protests against the Turkish government in 2013 (he has visited over 20 foreign countries in studying ethnic music), and the title of the CD's closing selection, "Taksim," is a Turkish word that means "division," but also makes reference to the Arabic word "Taqsim," for melodic improvisation. The theme is a stark whirling dervish and generates probing, bristling solos from Ortiz and Derke, with De Rosa's steadfast, insistent encouragement. The bassist and McPherson are next rightfully given the spotlight for a dialogue that is both finely detailed and enthralling.

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Scott Albin