NYSQ: Power of 10

NYSQ is for New York Standards Quartet; the 10 is for their duration as a band, in years. Perhaps they like the acronym because, as drummer Gene Jackson says in his liner notes, the Modern Jazz Quartet is one of the band’s models. MJQ is a paradigm, not for style but for the ensemble cohesion that only comes with time. The other members of NYSQ are saxophonist Tim Armacost, pianist David Berkman and bassist Michael Janisch. They do indeed play with the casual tightness of a group that has been around the world a few times together (even though Janisch is new).

Don’t let the “standards” part throw you. Their approach to the songbook is neither safe nor complacent. Before they play “How Deep Is the Ocean” (actually only hinting at it, for a little over a minute, in fragments), they play Berkman’s soaring, six-minute “Deep High Wide Sky,” based on its chord changes. “All of Me” has been done to death. It was a decade old when Django Reinhardt played it. NYSQ gives it hard, fresh harmonic angles and spikes of new energy. Yet when the theme is referenced, it is with affection, not irony. Speaking of affection, Berkman’s “Hidden Fondness” is “Secret Love,” creatively distorted.

Armacost’s arrangement and his tenor saxophone portray “Lush Life” as a continuous flow, a delicate unbroken line. NYSQ likes to attach little prologues or epilogues to their standards, as commentaries and/or free riffs. After “Lush Life,” with “Lush Effect,” Berkman responds to Billy Strayhorn’s masterwork with one luminous minute of piano cascades.

It is always good when albums end with their best track. “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” is a lonely tenor saxophone soliloquy, with Jackson tapping mysteriously somewhere in the deep background, and Armacost only occasionally glancing off Jimmy Van Heusen’s strangest, loveliest song.

Thomas Conrad

Thomas Conrad has a BA from the University of Utah and an MA from the University of Iowa (where he attended the Writers Workshop). He taught English at Central State University in Ohio, then left the academic world for the private sector. His affiliation with publications such as JazzTimes, Stereophile, The New York City Jazz Record and DownBeat has enabled him to sustain active involvement in two of his passions: music and writing.