ALTO SAXOPHONIST ALEXANDER MCCABE WEDS TRADITION AND INNOVATION ON HIS NEW QUARTET ALBUM
“McCabe's alto sax reaches out and touches your spirit with the stuff that jazz dreams are made of!”
—Dick Metcalf, Improvijazzation
Quiz (Consolidated Artists Productions), alto saxophonist-composer Alexander McCabe’s first new CD as a leader in five years, marks the return of a distinctive jazz stylist whose music is melodic and accessible as well as sophisticated and challenging. Joining him are pianist Uri Caine, bassist Ugonna Ukegwo, and drummers Greg Hutchinson and Rudy Royston. McCabe and his all-star quartet are well grounded in the jazz tradition, but stretch and expand it without losing sight of the jazz verities of swing, melody, and spontaneity.
“I learned as a traditionalist, but I want to build on the past," says McCabe. “I listened to the older guys first. My father was a big jazz fan, so there was a lot of Charlie Parker around the house. I listened to a lot of Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster. I've always listened to a lot of tenor players—Coltrane, Sonny Rollins. When I was 10, I took up the alto. After that, I got more into the usual alto sax
suspects—Cannonball, Jackie McLean, Eric Dolphy. Their music is engrained in me. So I like melody, simple melodic ideas, almost sparse, but I like to have interesting things going on under them so there’s also something challenging and different for both listeners and the band.”
This combination of directly appealing melody underpinned by sophisticated musical ideas is part of what makes Quiz such a unique and rewarding listening experience. For instance, “Weezie’s Waltz,” a delightful tune dedicated to McCabe’s niece, isn’t a strict waltz at all, alternating between waltz time and 5/4 time. “It’s pretty and quirky,” McCabe says, “sort of like my niece.” The title track begins in an odd meter before moving into straight-ahead swing. But the dense harmonies over which the catchy tune unfurls help maintain a feeling of mystery that intrigues and keeps you listening. McCabe’s arrangement of the standard, “Good Morning Heartache,” also springs a few surprises. He has the band play it as a bossa nova and he jettisons the chords in favor of a harmonically ambiguous pedal point that opens the tune to freer improvising. Another McCabe original, “St. Pat,” also flirts with free jazz, but played over a weird syncopated march beat.
McCabe picked musicians with a special combination of abilities to bring his music to life. “I knew I needed guys for this album who were grounded in the jazz tradition, but open to new ideas,” McCabe says. “I had met Uri at a gig. Of course, he has great avant-garde credentials, but he came up in Philly, playing with guys like Hank Mobley and Johnny Coles, so he knows straight-ahead as well. Ugonna knows his straight ahead jazz up and down, but I also know he’s a very open-minded player. Rudy is in Ugonna’s band. I had only played with him a few times, but we definitely hit it off. Greg I’ve known since we were both at Manhattan School of Music together.”
McCabe’s warm, dark tone draws listeners into the music with its thoughtful passion. His solos are elegant, there are no more notes than are needed and every note sounds accounted for, but they rarely develop in expected ways. In his sparkling solo on “Kalido,” McCabe’s phrases follow their own particular logic. The ideas are all connected and coherent, but never develop in a clichéd manner. On “Lonnegan,” he refreshes the blues with surprising twists and turns, extending ideas, moving away from them and circling back in a continuously unfolding musical drama. Even on “How Little We Know,” the album’s most conventionally swinging track, he imbues the American Song Book chestnut with a sweetness and insouciance tempered by a sharp, but compassionate intelligence.
The rest of the band plays with similar feeling and wit. Caine, who is best know for his series of post-modernist jazz interpretations of classical composers such as Mahler, Bach, and Mozart, plays with a down-home soulfulness on “Kalido” and even maintains that unpretentious funky feel during his freer moments on “St. Pat.” Like his band mates, Okegwo, who has appeared with jazz legends as diverse as Clark Terry, Benny Golson, Pharoah Sanders, and Joseph Jarman, keeps the music fresh with his surprising and personal approach. His big woody sound is instantly identifiable and he makes the most of that strong resonant sound in an inventively melodic and concise solo on “Good Morning Heartache.” McCabe’s music calls for drummers who can handle a wide range of responsibilities, from swinging odd meters to interacting with and supporting soloists. Hutchinson, a veteran of bands led by Joe Henderson, Betty Carter, Ray Brown, and countless other jazz giants, provides the kind of creativity and solid time needed on “Lonnegan” and “Kalido.” Drum duties on the remainder of the disc are handled by Rudy Royston, whose other credits include working with Ron Miles, Bill Frisell, Dr. Lonnie Smith, and many others. His playing on ”Weezie’s Waltz” and “Good Morning Heartache” reveals a keen sense of percussive color and orchestration as well as a responsive time-keeping style.
Alto saxophonist and composer Alexander McCabe is a musician with diverse talents and interests. Originally from Boston, he studied saxophone with New England jazz luminaries George Garzone and Jerry Bergonzi before moving to New York to continue his education at NYU and Manhattan School of Music. Since then, he has played with George Coleman, Harold Mabern, Clifford Jordan, and the Chico O’Farrell Afro-Cuban jazz big band. In 1988, he branched out from jazz to become a featured soloist in the orchestra of R&B legend Ray Charles. As a member and songwriter for the popular ska band Mephiskapheles, he has performed and toured the US and Europe. In addition, Mephiskapheles songs are featured prominently in MTV's The Real Life and on the soundtrack to the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies. McCabe’s other soundtrack credits include original music for the feature film River of Grass (1994), music for Possible Side Effects (2009) a Showtime Network pilot written and directed by Tim Robbins, and music for the HBO series Bored to Death (2010). His two previous CDs as a leader are The Round and Manhattan Operations.
On Quiz, Alexander McCabe shows that for musicians with the right sensibility, the jazz tradition can point the way to fresh innovations without being arcane or forbidding. This is swinging jazz with a twist, music that anyone can enjoy.
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