So many new recordings made during the year 2020 share the same backstory: With pandemic lockdowns firmly in place, musicians cut their parts at home studios, emailed files back and forth, and somehow patched together an album’s worth of music, some quite good, some just eh. Best Buddies tells a different tale: A quartet of Australians (the two co-leaders having long ago officially relocated to New York) found themselves in West Australia and managed to gather in the same room at the same time—what a concept! You can tell the difference too: The energy generated by players spontaneously creating together is palpable.
Roberts is a veteran, Grammy-nominated saxophonist with a dozen previous leader titles and a long list of sideman gigs. Jago is a fine guitarist who leads a trio and has played with A-listers as well. Along with acoustic bassist Karl Florisson and drummer Ben Vanderwal, the pair—who’ve known each other since they went to school together in Miami—used two days in the studio to work up nine original compositions, largely postbop in structure with occasional forays into balladry and elsewhere.
At the heart of the project are contrafacts: new melodies written over the chord progressions of various standards, among them Jago’s “Chythm Ranges,” built atop the Gershwin staple “I Got Rhythm,” and Roberts’ “Halfway House in C Major,” based on Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?” It’s a testament to the quartet’s artistry that they manage to move far enough away from the source material to avoid copycatting, although the familiarity underlying each tune is never far from the surface. Throughout, the level of performance is never less than outstanding, so that each piece ultimately stands ably on its own.