Just what is the New Standard Alliance all about?
"It's a jazz group that plays 'Black Hole Sun' and a lot of other great contemporary songs."
Slightly longer answer:
The New Standard Alliance plays instrumental arrangements of great songs from the 60's through the present. Their music is based in modern jazz, but borrows elements from latin, Brazilian, middle-eastern, electronic, funk, and rock musics. The NSA is the brainchild of vibraphonist/arranger James Shipp.
As Pat Buzby of jambands.com notes, "...Shipp has a mission." He describes the group as having a "noble goal," the pursuit of which results in "...enjoyable...jazz performances," due in part to James' "angular, gritty way with the vibes."
The following is taken from a review of this CD by Roman St. James of jazzreview.com.
"The New Standard Alliance, on their self-titled debut, have attempted to do something very difficult - to transform pop and rock hits into straight-ahead jazz vehicles. This is not unprecedented. Herbie Hancock attempted to do the same thing on his 1995 release The New Standard (anyone want to hazard a guess that this is where NSA got their name?). Hancock tackled a variety of tunes from such diverse artists as Peter Gabriel, Stevie Wonder, Prince, The Beatles and Nirvana. I still remember how excited I was when I first unwrapped that CD and popped it into my player. By the time it finished playing an hour later, I was quite disappointed. Hancock's approach was creative and complex, but it just didn't really work for me. The same with Joshua Redman's 1998 release Timeless Tales, where he also tried to 'jazzify' tunes by Stevie Wonder, The Beatles and Prince, among others. Again, it seemed to be missing something.
Finally, along comes NSA and I think they have hit the mark that Hancock and Redman fell short of. NSA consists of vibes player James Shipp (also the leader, founder, producer and arranger), trumpet player Ray Vega (of Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria and Ray Barretto fame, among others), tenor sax player Matt Garrison (not to be confused with John Coltrane bassist Jimmy Garrison's bass playing son) , guitarist Nolan Ericsson, bassist Chris Haney and drummer Kyle Struve.
There are some similarities in material between the NSA, Hancock and Redman albums. They've each included a Beatles tune ("Eleanor Rigby" on the NSA and Redman collections, "Norwegian Wood" on Hancock's) and NSA and Hancock each feature a Nirvana tune ("Drain You" and "All Apologies", respectively), but that's pretty much where the similarities end. Where Hancock and Redman seem to over-think, over-cook and over-play, NSA meditates, simmers and lays back. The thing that makes this type of project so daunting is that it's very difficult to take a pop tune and transform it into a respectable jazz tune that doesn't sound cheesy, lounge-like or forced. Even more daunting is to produce an end result that might appeal to both jazz fans and pop/rock fans, alike. I think NSA has succeeded on both counts. The proof of that success is particularly apparent on their cover of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean", a tune whose bass line alone is so recognizable that anyone over the age of 12 could probably 'name that tune' in less than 9 notes. To be able to take a tune like this, a pop anthem, and make people forget momentarily that it's a Michael Jackson tune, is a real gift. The fact that they do it without making any significant changes to the melody is what really makes this album succeed where Hancock and Redman failed.
They do the same with tunes by Bob Dylan (Blowin' In The Wind), Stone Temple Pilots (Vasoline), Radiohead (No Surprises and Black Star), Pearl Jam (Even Flow) and Soundgarden (Black Hole Sun). These guys are all excellent players, and everyone gets their solo moments in the spotlight here, but the two that shine especially bright are Vega and Garrison. Their improvisational prowess seems to know no bounds as line after beautiful line swirls out of their horns.
Not that this album is perfect... ...but overall this is an excellent album. I think that much of the credit for that has to go to Shipp, whose arrangements are lush yet simple, allowing the listener to recall the first time they heard these tunes while at the same time marveling at how well they function as straight-ahead jazz tracks." (END OF REVIEW)
James' first 'band' expereiences were playing drums in garage bands that covered music by his favorite groups in the early '90's. Later he immeresed himself in jazz music, and by the late '90's, he found that most of the jazz 'standards' he was playing were written in the early '40's-- his repertoire was nearly 3 times his age. Something about that rubbed him the wrong way. The following is an excerpt from his website, www.nsajazz.com.
"Songs that are common to most jazz musicans' repertoires are called 'standards.' Most of these songs were originally in Broadway shows, or written for crooners like Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, etc... Young people of the pre-WWII era loved this music, and jazz musicians realized that if they played instrumental versions of these songs, they could appeal to everyone without compromising their own styles. This all worked great, jazz was plenty popular, everyone was happy, and they naturally assumed they always would be.
A couple of wars later, those young Bing Crosby fans are your grandparents. They still love those old standards, and they still think it's the bees' knees and/or cat's pajamas when people play those songs today. The thing is, in the 50 or 60 years that have gone by since these 'jazz standards' were en vogue, new music has been made, and young audiences have embraced it. Now it's 2004, and many jazz musicians are still learning, performing, and recording 'standards,' songs that are between 20 and 60 years before their audience's time.
I don't pretend that I've never been party to this practice-I have lusted in my heart to find a new way to play 'Body and Soul,' after 50 years of jazz legends re-inventing re-inventions of the song, and I still enjoy trying. What I don't enjoy is shaking the hand of a twenty-something audience member after the show and hearing "That 'Body I Sold' song was great... did you write it? Does it have words?"
Can we hold it against this young patron of the arts that he doesn't know a song that was immensely popular 45 years before his birth? Can we look down on him for not memorizing every version of it from Billie Holiday's to Tony Bennett's; from Coleman Hawkins' to Jackie Terrason's? NO I SAY! This young man lives in the present, or at least the recent past. His parents listened to the rock and roll of the 60's, and he grew up on new wave, grunge rock, and hip-hop. Now he's listening to everything from Bjork to Radiohead to Mos Def, and he's supposed to know Body and Soul?! I think not.
So, do young jazz musicians give up and start building a time machine? Do we assume that people will believe that jazz is too high-minded to change its repertoire with the times and therefore somehow good for them? Do we count on the swell cats and kittens on the geriatric ward to come down to the club and jitterbug to our rousing rendition of 'Sing Sing Sing?' NO. We go back to the music we listened to before we discovered jazz, and we find some NEW STANDARDS.
This project is my attempt to do just that. The repertoire of this band is straight out of the records I cherished in my adolescence, the hipper stuff from my parents collection, and my favorite artists of today. I am not trying to make a huge fortune playing 'commercially successful' music, nor am I trying to suggest that anyone playing 'Bye Bye Blackbird' or 'All of Me' in 2003 is doing something wrong. I'm simply searching for my own musical identity by exploring the music that I was part of from the minute it was born into the world, and looking to connect with my own generation through the songs we all grew up to."
The members of The New Standard Alliance are:
James Shipp - vibes, arrangements
Ray Vega - trumpet, flugelhorn
Matt Garrison - tenor
Nolan Ericsson - guitar
Chris Haney - bass
Kyle Struve - drums
The New Standard Alliance is based in New York. Ray Vega appears courtesy of Palmetto Records.