Six Sax Quartets Combine on One CD

FOUR001

THERE YOU GO THINKING AGAIN / M. WATKINS: I Got Nothin’ But Nothin’.1 The Wrong Tree.2 Ballad.4 Cuidado.4 Lucy the Dog.5 Kilter.5 LINDSAY: To Be in Love.1 INGHAM: Fenella’s Jig.2 GUDMUNDSON: There You Go Thinking Again.3 AREND: Newstime3 / FOUR: Mark Watkins, s-sax; Ray Smith, a-sax; Sandon Mayhew, t-sax; Jon Gudmundson, bar-sax with: 1Miami Saxophone Quartet: Gary Keller, s-sax; Gary Lindsay, a-sax; Ed Calle, t-sax; Mike Brignola, bar-sax. 2Richard Ingraham Saxophone Quartet: Oliver Eve, s-sax; Sam Neal, a-sax; Matthew Kilner, t-sax; Richard Ingham, bar-sax. 3Saxitude: Dominique Gatto, s-sax; Pierre Cocq-Amann, a-sax; Robi Arend, t-sax; Thomas Diemert, bar-sax. 4Utah Saxophone Quartet: Charles Smith, s-sax; Daron Bradford, a-sax; David Feller, t-sax; Gaylen Smith, bar-sax. 5Zagreb Saxophone Quartet: Dragan Sremec, s-sax; Goran Merčep, a-sax; Saša Nestorović, t-sax; Matjaž Drevenšek, bar-sax / Jazz Hang Records JHR701F

This is the kind of CD that, were the participants not as talented as they are, could easily have been a gimmick. FOUR, the rhythm-section-less saxophone quartet, performs here on these 10 tracks with five other sax quartets. As FOUR’s leader and soprano saxist Mark Watkins put it in the liner notes:

The seed for this project was a performance with Saxitude at the Luxembourg Blues ‘n; Jazz Rallye in 2012…It made me think, “What if Robi [Arend, Saxitude’s tenor player] and I each wrote a double quartet for the next time FOUR traveled to Europe?” Robi wrote Newstime and I arranged Jon’s There You Go Thinking Again which we subsequently played at the Strasbourg World Saxophone Congress and Luxembourg Blues Express Festival in 2015.

FOUR then did something similar with the Zagreb Saxophone Quartet and “the project started to fill out.” This CD is the result of that brainstorming.

Listening to I Got Nothin’ But Nothin’, the opening track here, one is indeed reminded a bit of the World Saxophone Quartet, but FOUR’s music is less harmonically dissonant than that once-famous group. Nonetheless, like the WSQ, they create and propel a strong rhythm without the use of guitar, piano, bass and/or drums. The thing that I found most interesting is that the arrangement is so lean-sounding. Watkins’ piece and arrangement does not indulge, as one would assume it would, in rich reed textures. Rather, it almost sounds (pardon the simile) like two very bright classical string quartets playing opposite each other. The first solo, by Ray Smith on alto, is pretty out-there yet still adheres to the general form of the piece, which is a medium-fast blues, and the ensuing solos and written ensemble passages—in the style of Supersax, sounding like scored improvisations—all contribute to the building of the whole tune. This is what I liked most about this set: everyone listens to one another, and models their solos on what has come before. The lone exception here is Ed Calle’s tenor sax solo, which is real “outside” jazz, but a little stretching is not the same as consistently incoherent rambling.

This is followed by To Be in Love, a ballad, with the same partners. Watkins’ arrangement avoids the kind of cheap sentimentality that one often hears in ballad playing nowadays my means of his rhythmic and consistently moving inner voices. That being said, I did feel that a little more harmonic diversity would have helped it a bit more. It also went on a bit too long.

In the next two tracks, Fenella’s Jig and The Wrong Tree, FOUR is joined by the Richard Ingraham Saxophone Quartet. The former piece, written by Ingraham, does indeed start out in jig tempo but later morphs into a somewhat hectic, fast-paced jazz number in which the harmony shifts around a bit. Tenor player Sandon Mayhew has a really good solo here, but this is largely a showcase for the clever and intricate arrangement. The Wrong Tree is kind of a funky uptempo blues piece in the old Blue Note style though Watkins’ bouncing arrangement takes it on a different track. There’s a nice ensemble passage behind part of Mayhew’s tenor solo using the whole-tone scale, too.

Saxitude joins FOUR on There You Go Thinking Again, a cute medium-tempo swing tune made a bit more modern via some of the inner harmonies and the quasi-Latin beat. This is one of the best compositions on the album, written by baritone saxist Jon Gudmundson. Arend’s Newstime is unabashedly Latin-sounding in its rhythm, with a simpler but effective structure, allowing Watkins to play an excellent soprano solo.

Watkins’ Ballad, featuring the Utah Saxophone Quartet, is a more interesting and slightly more intricate piece than To Be in Love, and the arrangement makes the most here of the timbral blends of the reeds, while Cuidado opens with some polyphonic counterpoint that continues as the theme is introduced—not nearly as Latin-sounding as its title would suggest, but rather with some interesting backbeat passages played against Mayhew’s tenor solo. In fact, the intricacies of the interior rhythm (meaning the playing of the “background” saxes) continues to morph and shift as the piece progresses. This, too, is one of the stronger compositions on this disc. Charles Smith of the Utah Quartet also contributes a good soprano solo.

By contrast, Watkins’ Lucky the Dog, played with the Zagreb Saxophone Quartet, bears a strange resemblance to the old Village Stompers’ hit tune Washington Square, only more intricately arranged, including a fairly complex polyphonic passage in the middle. Our little excursion ends with Kilter, an extremely odd piece to say the least, in which a descending chromatic licks played by the two alto saxes and one baritone is played against an eerie but lyrical melodic line. Despite a solo on soprano by Watkins, this one is mostly remarkable for the ensemble conception and execution. I’m not sure that a medium slow piece like this makes an effective ending to the CD (I would, personally, have chosen There You Go Thinking Again), but it’s clearly an inventive piece, sounding much like some of the experimental jazz of the 1950s (think of Allyn Ferguson, Tony Scott, Chico Hamilton etc.).  I particularly liked the double-time passage for the two sopranos played against a chromatically-moving baritone sax line.

All in all, an interesting and inventive album what will surely have you go thinking again.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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