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David Hazeltine: Manhattan Autumn

Some albums are interesting to review together because of their similarities. These two recordings, with their similar titles and piano-playing leaders, make an interesting pairing because of their contrasts.

David Hazeltine’s Manhattan Autumn documents the evolution of his New York-based quartet in its native milieu at a particular moment. (It was recorded in Brooklyn in November 2002.) The title track of Pete Malinverni’s CD is the only tune on either recording that contains either the season or the city in its title. Autumn In New York is, in part, one more in the world’s continuing outpouring of artistic works responding to 9/11.

Hazeltine likes tempos that bounce and snap. His quartet takes obvious pleasure in the sheer competence with which it makes Hazeltine’s often challenging material sound easy. Tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander is perfect for this setting, because he is fleet and clear-throated and logical and ebullient. Bassist Peter Washington and drummer Joe Farnsworth complete the ensemble. The fact that these four have shared bandstands and studios for seven years is audible in their

dialed-in, locked-down cohesion.

While he is a mainstream traditionalist, Hazeltine is unusually skilled at refreshing well-worn songs through harmonic and metric reconfiguration. He offers intellectually rigorous interpretations of emotionally nonchallenging themes like “Moon River” and “The Look of Love.” Monk’s “Ask Me Now” is less successful because, when presented with thematic material of profound spiritual resonance, this band’s unexamined optimism sounds a little naive.

There is nothing naive about Autumn in New York. The thudding, funereal chords of the title track immediately identify the particular autumn day in New York history that is Malinverni’s subject. Vernon Duke’s elegant song is transformed into a chilling dirge, which moves from stunned shock to active grieving when bassist Dennis Irwin and drummer Leroy Williams enter and push it into time. (Irwin takes a poignant, quiet solo, the most somber of summations.)

A Malinverni original called “Elegy” also reacts to the devastating loss of 9/11, but through a structure that, while not distancing emotion, preserves it within a formal aesthetic. Malinverni is conservatory-trained, and his classical education is manifest in the opening and closing canon for bass and piano. The through-composed main section of “Elegy” takes its simple motif, pared to the bones of sorrow, through small, affecting variations. There are three other originals, and four more standards. The best of them is “In Love in Vain,” another of Malinverni’s slow, revelatory inward excursions.

The audio quality of these two CDs is another point of contrast. They were recorded by two of the finest engineers in jazz, but, oddly, only one of them sounds like it. Mike Marciano recorded Manhattan Autumn and it glistens with a vitality entirely in keeping with the music’s joie d’vivre. Autumn in New York, in its darkness and dull top end, sounds nothing like a Jim Anderson recording, but he is listed as the engineer.

David Hazeltine’s album is both technically impressive and extremely likable. Pete Malinverni’s less-is-more approach and his emotional honesty reach deeper.

Originally Published