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Beautiful Friendship-- Tom Dempsey / Tim Ferguson Quartet

Some may be most attracted to this CD by the presence of consummate saxophonist Joel Frahm, but the lesser known co-leaders of this quartet, guitarist Tom Dempsey and bassist Tim Ferguson, will prove just as satisfying, not to mention the impeccable drummer Eliot Zigmund. Dempsey and Ferguson have played together for over 20 years, and individually with such artists as Kenny Barron, Roy Haynes, and Dave Brubeck (Dempsey), and Eddie Harris, George Cables, and Stefon Harris (Ferguson). Frahm is perhaps best known for his work with Brad Mehldau and Jane Monheit, while Zigmund first made his mark with the Bill Evans Trio in the '70's and later Michel Petrucciani. While these four musicians paths have crossed previously, this is the first time they have come together as a quartet, although their sensitive rapport belies that fact. They share an economy of style and a clarity of expression, which help to make this recording (Dempsey and Ferguson's third co-led venture) so consistently rewarding.

Randy Weston's classic "Little Niles" is given a respectful treatment that doesn't break any new ground but is tight and polished. Frahm builds a tenor solo that culminates with intense, swirling phrases, and Dempsey's foray is concise and lucid. Ferguson's bass is steadfast throughout, while Zigmund precise drumming is relentlessly stimulating. "50-21" is a characteristically fresh and appealing Thad Jones opus. Frahm's solo wails from the start, with rapid single-note lines in the bop vernacular, as Dempsey backs him with gently struck chords. The guitarist's own improv is anything but laid back, as he takes his lyrical opening to surging heights before giving way to Ferguson's emphatic spot and the bassist's exchanges with the buoyantly tasteful Zigmund. Dempsey's "Focus Pocus" is not to be confused with Lee Morgan's "Hocus Pocus," although this riffing theme is every bit as catchy in its own way. Frahm develops it with melodic flair, as does the composer, with the theme always lurking but artfully and zestfully enhanced.

Frahm's tenor unveils the standard "Autumn in New York" with genuine feeling, supported by Dempsey's deft chords and obbligatos. Dempsey's solo is laden with lovely harmonies and possesses a graceful arc. Frahm follows in a charged and bluesy manner reminiscent of Houston Person or Lockjaw Davis, only to turn tender once again for the reprise. Zigmund's flawless brush work is the thread that helps make this such a classy interpretation of the Vernon Duke tune. "It's True" is credited to all four members of the quartet, and has a boppish head that Frahm and Dempsey expand upon contrapuntally. Dempsey's solo weaves sparkling extended lines, while Frahm's seems to fall somewhere between Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman in its restless journey. Ferguson's improv has a Charlie Haden-like stalwartness and is succeeded unexpectedly by a succinct tenor/guitar exploration of "There Will Never Be Another You" that resolves neatly.

"Cakewalk" is a New Orleans parade-style romp from Ferguson that is sparked by Frahm's joyful soprano, with the bassist and Zigmund keeping an infectious rhythmic pulse. Frahm, Dempsey, and Ferguson offer up solos that are both entertaining and adroitly constructed. "Ted's Groove" is Dempsey's tribute to guitarist Ted Dunbar, and its mellow, captivating theme finds Frahm and Dempsey floating in unison over Ferguson's salutary accents and Zigmund's forthright, prodding patterns, complete with drum rolls. The guitarist and tenor saxophonist each inject some funk into their unassuming statements, and their closing vamp allows Zigmund to expound uninhibitedly. The quartet's take on "Beautiful Friendship" is rhythmically forceful, as Ferguson and Zigmund maintain an urgent pace over which Dempsey and then Frahm burn brightly, the latter particularly impressing with his multi-faceted attack and tonal variety. Trades with Zigmund again vividly define the drummer's artistry, craft, and focused passion.

Ferguson's charming ballad, "Last Summer," is warmly played by Frahm, with Dempsey delicately contributing the bridge. The guitarist's solo outlines the melody with subtle chords and a few swift arpeggios, but Frahm submits a boisterous commentary that he seems to create as one rapturous whole. Since the CD was recorded in Union City, NJ, right on the Hudson River, Monk's "Coming on the Hudson" makes for a fitting finale. Dempsey presents the theme in a staggering way, seasoned slightly with dissonance, before a repeat by the full quartet in a more straight ahead approach. Frahm feasts on the harmonic possibilities in his appropriately quirky solo, with Dempsey subsequently forming a string of alluring paraphrases leading up to the short but sweet reprise.

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Scott Albin