Lefkowitz-Brown Plays “Standards”

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STANDARD SESSIONS / MOBLEY: This I Dig of You.1 PARKER: Scrapple From the Apple.1 SCHWARTZ-DIETZ: Alone Together.2 KAPER: Green Dolphin Street.3 ROBISON: Old Folks.4 COLEMAN: When Will the Blues Leave?3 LOEWE-LERNER: Almost Like Being in Love.5 DePAUL-JOHNSTON: I’ll Remember April.5 GREEN-HEYMAN: Out of Nowhere.6 PORTER: What is This Thing Called Love?7 PARKER: Yardbird Suite.4 BROWN-KAHN: You Stepped Out of a Dream8 / Chad Lefkowitz-Brown, t-sax; 1David Meder, 2Manuel Valera, 3Steven Feifke, 4Takeshi Ohbayashi, 5Adam Birnbaum, 6Josh Richman, 7Victor Gould, 8Carmen Staaf, pno; 1Barry Stephenson, 2Ben Tiberio, 3Yasushi Nakamura, 4Tamir Shmerling, 5Eric Wheeler, 6Raviv Markovitz, 7Jonathan Michel, 8Ricky Rodriguez, bs; 1Charles Goold, 2Allan Mednard, 3Michael Piolet, 4Bryan Carter, 5Chris Smith, 6Jeremy Dutton, 7Darrian Douglas, 8Kush Abadey, dm / Sound Frame Records (no number), available as digital-only download at www.chadlefkowitz-brown.com/music

This new digital-only release by tenor saxophonist Chad Lefkowitz-Brown is titled the Standard Session, but there is often a disconnect in that definition of tunes. Many of these songs are indeed standards in both the pop and jazz sense, but Charlie Parker’s Scrapple From the Apple and Yardbird Suite and Hank Mobley’s This I Dig of You are only standards in the jazz world. I honestly doubt that Ornette Coleman’s When Will the Blues Leave? is really a standard even in the jazz world (only about two or three of his many compositions are standards because of their amorphous harmonic base), and the only reason Willard Robison’s Old Folks is on this list, I am sure, is because Charlie Parker recorded it (with a simply awful vocal ensemble background, in the early 1950s).

But Lefkowitz-Brown, an eight-year veteran of the New York scene who has played with the late Dave Brubeck (a stellar recommendation in itself), Arturo O’Farrill (son of the late, great jazz composer-arranger Chico O’Farrill) and pop star Taylor Swift (actually, not much of a recommendation to musicians!), has surrounded himself here with no less than eight different rhythm section combinations on this album. Thankfully, Lefkowitz-Brown’s proclivity is towards real jazz (undoubtedly the result of his association with Brubeck as well as O’Farrill), and his improvisations are indeed inventive and exciting without resorting to constant squealing and squawking. In short, he knows just what he’s doing and is consistently inventive throughout.

This is no small feat. With the exception of a handful of saxophonists (among them Noah Preminger, whose work I am simply enthralled with), too many players nowadays confuse novelty for invention, and I’m not just saying this because most of these tunes are old swing or bop pieces. I believe that Lefkowitz-Brown would be just as inventive in a more modern setting, playing (for instance) in the very complex charts of Aruán Ortiz or Jungsu Choi. He has great instincts as well as a load of talent.

His backup rhythm sections also swing mightily behind him, creating a wonderful web of sound for him to play over and interacting when they get the chance. Unfortunately, some of the piano solos fly by so quickly that if one blinks you might miss them, but they too are quite good. In Scrapple From the Apple, taken at more of a swing than a bop rhythmic feel (though drummer Charles Goold plays some nice boppish backbeats), Lefkowitz-Brown plays a nice double-time half-chorus that fits in brilliantly with the surrounding material, and Goold’s more laid-back piano fits in well. Bassist Barry Stephenson’s solo is particularly bouncy and full of good humor, as are Bryan Carter’s drum breaks. This quartet is just full of energy and excitement.

There is a decidedly different acoustic on the next session, in which they recorded Alone Together: it’s much closer miked, almost a bit dry like an old mono recording from the 1940s, except that it’s in stereo. Perhaps that was their idea, yet the conception is more modern, almost sounding like a Jazz Messengers performance from the mid-1960s.Here, pianist Manuel Valera is more aggressive than Goold, driving the performance to an almost manic intensity with his solo. This sure isn’t an ambient jazz CD, that’s for sure!

For the life of me, I’ve never understood why so many jazz musicians go gaga over Bronislaw Kaper’s On Green Dolphin Street. I mean, yeah, it’s a nice song, but for me the melody and/or the changes just aren’t that interesting or different enough to warrant constant playing. Nonetheless, Lefkowitz-Brown and his next rhythm section again play it with energy and invention, with the saxist giving us a brief impression of Coltrane’s “sheets of sound.” To be honest, however, I was not terribly impressed by Yasushi Nakamura on bas; his playing was too square and stiff for my taste. Otherwise, however, a good track.

In a way, I was actually happy to hear Old Folks since it provided a rare moment of relaxation in this set and also showed how Lefkowitz Brown, though a tenor player, learned some lessons in phrasing from Johnny Hodges and/or Willie Smith (particularly those tasteful chromatic glisses upward on held notes). In addition, Tamir Shmerling is a wonderful bassist who can make the rhythm “spring” just by his rhythmic placement of notes in the background. When Will the Blues Leave? puts the saxist and his rhythm section back in jump mode, and again he takes off brilliantly and, again, gives us a little taste of Coltrane. Steven Feifke’s piano solo is so good that you almost expect to hear, say, a Blue Note or Birdland audience going nuts with applause when it’s finished, and drummer Michael Piolet sounds as if he’s trying out for the New Buddy Rich award (yes, that’s a good thing). Following this, Almost Like Being in Love takes off at a wonderful medium-slow tempo of the sort that has almost disappeared from modern jazz, and again everyone is in flight mode. Also, in this as in other tracks, I love the way the musicians encourage each other in the background with little shouts of approval.

I’ll Remember April is taken at a fast clip, yet with enough relaxation between beats to produce a nicely-paced performance, with little insertions of a Latin beat here and there. Adam Birnbaum’s piano solo starts out nicely tongue-in-cheek but heats up, and again the band members are yelling encouragement to one another. Out of Nowhere, a truly great tune with wonderful changes, is next, taken at a relaxed medium-slow pace, and here Lefkowitz-Brown builds his inventions from chorus to chorus like a master composer, using motifs and harmonic ideas from the one previous to build on. Josh Richman’s single-note piano solo is also quite good. Interestingly, the saxist plays the melody line of What is This Thing Called Love? straight, rather than including the bop lick from the 1940s that is so common today, but once he takes off he’s flying. Victor Gould’s piano solo is harmonically interesting and also swinging. Yardbird Suite also coasts along at a nice, swinging pace, with Lefkowitz-Brown again creating a real structure in his extended solo.

You Stepped Out of a Dream is taken at a rather quick pace, radically different from the dreamy ballad tempo of the original hit recording by Glenn Miller. They make it sound more like You Jumped Out of a Dream!

This is one of those very rare studio sessions where the whole band sounds as if they’re at one of those side-street cafes or coffeehouses in Greenwich Village in the early ‘70s at 11:00 p.m., one of those sessions where the musicians like they’re playing for their own enjoyment, as if the small crowd was just lucky to be there at that moment. How can you not give an album like this five stars (or, as in my guide to classical music, five fish)? Anything less would be a travesty of justice!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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