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John Stowell/Michael Zilber Quartet: Basement Blues

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Following this West Coast ensemble’s two widely acclaimed recordings, Shot Through With Beauty and Live Beauty, Basement Blues may seem a departure, in tone and tack. But as “Stowell in Heart” and other highlights here warmly illustrate, Basement Blues is similarly riddled with charms, to say nothing of its soulful allure and conversational postbop gambits.

A bit of good cheer, too, enlivens this intimate session, as when the quartet unwraps Michael Zilber’s “Have Yourself a Vince Guaraldi Xmas.” Zilber, who adroitly doubles on soprano and tenor saxophones, and guitarist John Stowell, always adept at holding up his end of a contrapuntal bargain, alternately contribute seven compositions. Frequent shifts in moods and dynamics aside, the original tunes invariably play to the duo’s strengths, in ways that often contrast Zilber’s passion with Stowell’s pristine lyricism. Both musicians have ample space to demonstrate their harmonic agility and melodic finesse, and yet the arrangements, instead of sounding episodic and repetitive, flow, swirl and dance.

The three remaining tunes, including distinctly personalized arrangements of Jerome Kern’s swan song, “Nobody Else But Me,” and the Bill Evans chestnut “Very Early,” further underscore what is truly an inspired musical alliance, made all the more striking by the empathetic (and sometimes catalytic) support provided by a pair of Bay Area vets: bassist John Shifflett and drummer Jason Lewis. Indeed, when Wayne Shorter’s influence looms large on “Later That Night,” a group composition distinguished by clattering syncopation, intervallic leaps and a spontaneous air, Shifflett and Lewis shine.

Originally Published