Bruce Abbott and the North Star Jazz Ensemble: Romancing the Sax

With an ambitious slate of classics to take on, from “Misty” to “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” Romancing the Sax (North Star NS147; 48:44) immediately sets itself up for impossible comparisons to well-loved interpreters. Bruce Abbott and the North Star Jazz Ensemble take on this unenviable task, delivering old-fashioned arrangements designed to take listeners back to more romantic times.

The ensemble is game for the effort, dishing brushed club-jazz for “When I Fall in Love,” sweeping strings for “Misty” and hushed dramatics on “My Funny Valentine.” The problem lies with the workmanlike approach of bandleader Abbott, whose note-for-note, on-the-beat reads are as straightforward as those you might hear at a wedding. His sax work on “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” for example, is serviceable rather than interpretive or emotional, even in the context of North Star’s dreamy 1950s-styled string arrangement. Abbott is slightly more at ease on uptempo pieces like “Let’s Fall in Love,” but the note-for-note character of the melody still comes across as a little square and inhibited. Without the Sax highlight of the title, others in the ensemble may have been able to deliver more interpretive solos; pianist Ron Fournier’s work would have naturally highlighted “As Time Goes By,” for example.

What this album will inspire is a longing for a great song stylist: Sinatra, Garland, Armstrong and their musical descendents. These timeless voices prove that interpretation and emotional resonance are critical to supporting a classic melody.