Ehud Asherie and Harry Allen’s Magical Upper West Side
What does the thought of New York’s Upper West Side conjure up for you? Homeless Iraq war vets panhandling at the subway station at 72nd and Broadway? Cops frisking teens for contraband twenty blocks north in order to meet the quotas of cheap arrests arbitrarily imposed by NYPD brass? Brand-new multimillion-dollar condos infested with bedbugs? Such is the state of the Upper West Side, 2012. For those who prefer a Woody Allen-style Upper West Side of the mind, pianist Ehud Asherie and tenor saxophonist Harry Allen have a new duo album by that title just out from Posi-Tone that conjures up a vastly more enjoyable, suavely urbane milieu. Imagine spacious prewar buildings, low lights, wood paneling, red wine and purist jazz and you are on the right track.
The two make a good team. Allen is the rake and Asherie is his wingman. Allen’s misty shtick works as well as it does because he happens to be a hell of a blues player, and will surprise you here and there with the occasional detour into gracefully edgy microtonal swoops and dives. Among the new breed of jazz organists, Asherie is a standout player with impeccable rhythm and an intuitive feel for melodic basslines. What makes this album different is that on all the midtempo and upbeat tracks here, he’s basically playing stride piano – but with a judicious, tight swing rather than a careening barrelhouse attack. After all, if you’re doing an album of standards, you have to put your own mark on them.
The opening track, Learnin the Blues perfectly capsulizes the appeal of the album, setting a mood within the first few bars with casually steady, precise piano providing a solid framework for Allen’s slinky, warmly melodic lines. It Had to Be You picks up the pace; O Pato is a caffeinated bossa tune with some jaunty, carnaval-esque, chromatic tinges by Allen that Asherie winds down with an unexpectedly whispery, starlit outro. Gershwin’s Our Love Is Here to Stay has some especially choice, impressionistic rubato piano that sets up a mutually relaxed, satisfied groove, echoed even more vividly on the album’s strongest track, Strayhorn’s Passion Flower, Allen reaching back for a Ben Webster bluesiness.
Richard Rodgers’ Have You Met Miss Jones has the duo reverting to assigned roles, picking up on I Want to Be Happy, Asherie’s righthand accents cleverly mimicking a pulsing, staccato horn arrangement. Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams has a sly Brother Can You Spare a Dime reference and a practically imperceptible crescendo; they keep I’m in the Mood for Love on the straight and narrow as Allen goes breathy, with a nice impressionistic Asherie outro. Eubie Blake’s Love Will Find a Way blends smokiness into its ragtime tinges; they close with a brisk but measured take on My Blue Heaven, a terrific choice to end the album on a note that stops just thisshort of breathless. With its thoughtful if not radical rearrangements, solid playing and chemistry between the two musicians, this one’s for the purists from Lincoln Center all the way up to Columbia and probably a lot further uptown as well. And while we’re at it, make that the east side too