Benjamin Koppel — The Ultimate Soul & Jazz Revue
(Unit / Cowbell UTR4659, 2020, 2CD)
The Art of the Quartet — The Art of the Quartet
(Unit / Cowbell UTR4658, 2020, 2CD)
by Jon Davis, Published 2020-12-21
The Art of the Quartet is what happens when four extraordinary jazz players get together. This 2CD set contains 12 outstanding tracks brimming with creativity and talent. Drummer Jack DeJohnette’s reputation as one of jazz’s great drummers is never in doubt, and Kenny Werner (piano), Scott Colley (bass), and Benjamin Koppel (alto sax) are all superb here. There are two group improvisations, one standard, and nine written by group members — four from Werner, two each from DeJohnette and Koppel, and one from Colley. The improvisations (“Free I” and “Free II”) are among the highlights, ranging widely in mood and tempo, never flagging in interest in spite of their lengths. Another highlight is their reading of DeJohnette’s “Ahmad the Terrible,” which was originally on his 1984 Special Edition album. The standard included is “If I Should Lose You,” here given a spirited reading, with Werner’s unaccompanied intro being the high point. For my money, Werner is the star of this show, his playing inventive and unconventional, able to tackle the harmonies tastefully and occasionally with a dissonant edge that elevates the set. Colley and DeJohnette prove themselves in solo spots and support roles. The arrangement of “If I Should Lose You” is particularly engaging, with the rhythm section trading off improvisations. Koppel is a melodic player, rarely venturing into the saxophone’s less tuneful reaches and avoiding any touches of angst, though he manages to not sink into sappiness. “The Art of the Quartet” may sound like an almost arrogant name, but these four are up to the task, at least in the realm of more mainstream jazz. Listeners looking for touches of avant-garde might find it a bit tame, but there’s no denying the quality of these musicians.
The other Koppel project that came my way recently is The Ultimate Soul & Jazz Revue, and as it says on the label, it’s a collection of well-known pieces from soul and jazz artists. Colley is once again on board playing bass, joined by Randy Brecker (trumpet), Jacob Christofferen (keyboards), and Bernard Purdie (drums), with additional contributions on certain tracks from Dan Hemmer (organ), Jacob Andersen (percussion), Søren Heller (guitar), and Benjamin Koppel’s sister Marie Carmen Koppel (vocals). The result is a somewhat pedestrian set of familiar songs with little to distinguish it in originality. The players are all fine at their positions, but there’s little real energy or creativity brought to bear. Tunes by Buddy Miles, Dizzy Gillespie, Curtis Mayfield, Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, and Bacharach / David are presented in a loungey fashion that is not likely to please many jazz fans. Here Koppel’s inflections on sax come off as cliched, more suited to elevators than a jazz club. I can’t recommend this set, though The Art of the Quartet gets a clear thumbs-up.
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