The Broken Reed Saxophone Quartet’s album The Sound of a Broken Reed is a quintessentially New York creation. With its edgy humor and intelligence, it’s steeped in history but just as irreverent, pretty much what you would expect from a bunch of longtime downtown types jazzing up Debussy, Piazzolla and Led Zep. Yet as entertaining and amusing as the covers here are, it’s bandleader Charley Gerard’s compositions that stand out the most. As you may have guessed, the album title is sarcastic: the charts are lustrous, the ensemble plays seamlessly and the songs swing just as hard as they would if there were bass and drums on them. The only other instrument besides the saxes (Gerard on alto, Jenny Hill primarily on soprano, Chris Bacas mostly on tenor and Alden Banta on baritone) is Carl Banner’s elegant piano on the first two suites. Most of the album, as well as a considerable amount of equally intriguing, more recent material, is streaming at the group’s Soundcloud page.
The opening diptych is Gerard’s Quintet for Carl and Saxes, Banner’s third-stream lyricism followed by lush four-part harmonies that grow to a majestic waltz. The second part is a wry series of interwoven miniatures that’s basically a non-linear history of jazz: ragtime, lounge, a little noir amd sumptuous big band swing, capped off by a genial soprano solo by Bacas.
The second suite is Dick Hyman’s droll Novelties for Piano and Sax Quartet: jaunty ragtime, a couple of lively staccato strolls and a comedic polka/ragtime hybrid. They follow that with Gerard’s Quartet No. 3, bookending a pensive exchange of voices led by Banta with variations on a theme that very artfully coalesces out of lively, dancing counterpoint.
The Led Zep comes after that. Humor-wise, it’s a lot like the Threeds Oboe Trio’s take on the Doors or Michael Jackson, equal parts spoof and opportunity to have fun with taking old themes to new places. Whole Lotta Love and an unexpectedly anxious, rather radical remake of Dazed and Confused are barely recognizable until halfway through, while miniature versions of Heartbreaker and Kashmir are as irresistibly over the top as you could possibly want. Living Loving Maid falls somewhere in between.
Tom Olin takes over for Bacas on tenor (with Hill playing soprano, as she does with a judicious elan on most of the tracks) on three Gerard remakes of Summer, from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The first has a balmy Miles Ahead vibe and adheres closest to the baroque, the second a lively, bluesy exchange of voices, the third a mashup with Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay, done as a clave tune
Bacas moves back to his usual tenor, Olin to soprano for his arrangement of Debussy’s Syrinx for Solo Flute, fleshed out with a nod to Gil Evans, weaving the pensive melody through the whole ensemble. Gerard’s medley of popular Cuban melodies (De Cuba Para La Habana, Guantanamera, Bilonto and El Manicero) bops along with a sunny pulse, followed by Hill’s pensively airy, understatedly majestic waltz arrangement of Astor Piazzolla’s Chiquilín de Bachín. It’s a rare blend of edgy fun and razor-sharp chops.
For anyone who might take exception to giving this much ink to an album that came out in 2009, that’s old thinking. Exciting as the past year has been, if the only music we listened to was brand-new, nobody would have heard of Coltrane or Mingus.