Peter Brendler’s recent projects include an austere collection of duets with guitarist John Abercrombie and a couple of wild and wooly albums with intrepid saxophonist Jon Irabagon. That broad spectrum made it difficult to guess how the young bassist would shape his debut as a bandleader. Outside the Line answers the question with a two-horn quartet sans piano or guitar.
Normally it’s bad news for a leader-composer when the covers are all better than the originals. But here it is less a problem with the new material and more the virtue of Brendler’s shrewd choices and the quartet’s inspired renditions. Chet Baker’s “Freeway,” most notably performed with the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, was one of the more frenetic songs in the cool-jazz school, and Brendler’s similarly instrumented group embarks on a spirited ride with tenor saxophonist Rich Perry and trumpeter Peter Evans pushing the pace both solo and in tandem. The moment you hear Brendler plunk out the iconic bassline of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” against the brushed shuffle-beats from drummer Vinnie Sperrazza, you wonder why the piece isn’t a jazz standard by now. Evans and Perry both take pleasant rubato turns with the melody and refrain. Last but never least is the foursquare boldness of Ornette Coleman’s “Una Muy Bonita,” with the strutting horns and strumming rhythm section at high alert on parallel planes.
Brendler’s nine originals provide a fair bit of variety against the challenge of writing for a chordless ensemble. They range from the vintage, Bird-esque bebop of “Pharmacology” to the splayed semi-free improvisations comprising “Openhanded.” In the end, Outside the Line may not be as daring as its title implies, but there is a hunger and diligence that keeps the music taut.