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Marc Mommaas/Nikolaj Hess: Ballads and Standards

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Marc Mommaas belongs to a special society of tenor saxophone players who are revered by other tenor players but not famous. (Rich Perry and Adam Kolker are also members.) Mommaas is probably best known for his work with pianist Amina Figarova, where his sensitivity suits her subtle compositions and his edginess always alters them.

Pianist Nikolaj Hess is further under the radar than Mommaas but shares a capacity for asymmetrical lyricism. Back in the previous millennium, a program of ballads and standards would have been unremarkable, perhaps even too obvious. Nowadays, when most jazz musicians think they are composers, such a project is contrarian.

Mommaas and Hess play just outside these songs, but are clearly always thinking of the melodies. “The Peacocks” is one of the most mysterious and sublime works in the jazz canon. As written, it hovers, then releases and flows. Mommaas has a light but personal tenor sound. His phrasing is naturally counterintuitive. He introduces new hesitations and caesuras into Jimmy Rowles’ masterpiece, all in unexpected places. Mommaas’ version is one of the most rapt and ethereal on record.

Monk’s “Ask Me Now” is lingered over, slowed for intense scrutiny. Hess introduces “In a Sentimental Mood” with surprising dark chords. Mommaas’ first pass is a free abstraction of Ellington. Gradually fragments become recognizable. Thomas Morgan, the most gifted young bassist in jazz, enhances this duo album on three tracks. The line he threads through “The Shadow of Your Smile” is an objective correlative for yearning. Morgan and Hess sound like they are discovering “Never Let Me Go” simultaneously, as it occurs to them. By the time Mommaas enters, the song is already a deep supplication.

It was a bold decision to make an entire album this profoundly quiet. Ballads and Standards should only be played after midnight. It will stimulate creative dreams.

Originally Published