New Standard Quintet – The Many Faces (2012)

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Photograph by David Gross

New Standard Quintet lives up to its name, time and again, not by resurrecting age-old tracks but by trying to fashion its own rules for approaching original jazz music. Almost to a fault, the Chicago-based group gives the slip to the cliches that sink this age-old form, making The Many Faces a ride that’s as inviting as it is intriguing.

The album opens on a hard-swinging note, with saxophonist Ken Partyka leading a coiled group through the angular, but very musical beginnings of “The Melbourne Method.” Guitarist Pat Fleming, the song’s composer, adds a series of sharp, fusion-informed asides, while electric keyboardist Tom Vaitsas works in percussive counterpoint. Already, this Chicago-based group has set a template for what’s to come, offering a take on jazz that’s frisky and modern, but also boasts a mindfully mature sense of melody. New Standard Quintet has an edge, but it’s not a serrated one.

Partyka’s “Mirror Mirror,” a stop-start Monk-inspired blues, allows the active but never showy pairing of drummer Rick Vitek and bassist Curt Bley an opportunity to shine. Partyka’s saxophone has the smoky intrigue of a noir film, but the song never stumbles into black-and-white banality thanks to the dime-turning eloquence of its rhythm section. Together, they imbue “Mirror Mirror” with an interesting friction.

‘A Voz Doce,” the second of Fleming’s five originals on this nine-song project, settles into a pleasant island groove, as Vitek switches to the brushes and Partyka offers a whispery accompaniment. Fleming solos here, first alone and then alongside a suddenly ruminative Vaitsas, are a tour-de-force – as he plays with this wonderfully idiosyncratic sense of humor, intelligence and wonder. At times, Fleming’s guitar has an almost weightless quality, at others a roaming sophistication, at still others this relaxed sense of winking intrigue.

“Uncertainty Principle” then comes crashing in, recalling the muscular inventiveness of this album’s opening track, as Partyka and Fleming storm out in unison. In what seems like a matter of moments, New Standard Quintet has gotten to an instrumental segment that is perhaps the most challenging so far, as Vaitsas walks right up to the edge of outside jazz while Vitek happily bashes away. Partyka, ever the well-grounded leader, steps into draw the track back towards its bop-ish center – underscoring once more the group’s tight focus on musicality. Fleming’s turn, tough and full of arena-rock attitude, becomes a soaring bridge back toward the original theme.

Partyka returns with the title track, an unpretentiously performed slow cooker. It’s perhaps the safest moment on The Many Faces, providing a catalyst for the saxist’s warm, inviting tone but ending without the challenging undertones that elsewhere make this album so memorable. Bley’s thudding bass intro on Fleming’s “Only More So …” signals a sprightly shift in direction, and it is: From Partyka’s stuttering lines to the guitarist’s lyrically balanced counterpoints to Vitek’s fizzy accompaniment to Vaitsas’ impishly involving turn at the electric piano, this track is a complete return to form.

“One Eyed Jack” finds Vaitsas switching to a gurgling organ, giving the Fleming track a throwback soul-jazz vibe. There’s a jaunty insouciance through smart solos by Fleming, Partyka and then Vaitsas, however, that keeps the track from becoming predictable or rote. Partyka’s “In the Kitchen” then ramps up into a solid, in-the-pocket post-bop groove, with Vaitsas remaining at the organ.

The Many Faces concludes with Partyka’s “No More Words (Goodnight)”, as the saxophonist gets set, it seems, to send us home with a sense of romantic reverie. Only, once more, this restlessly inventive amalgam begins to assert itself with these fascinating digressions. Bley adds a few funky thoughts. Vitek catches a salacious little groove. Then, all of a sudden, Vaitsas has moved into this grease-popping, soul-dripping electric-piano solo. By the time Partyka makes his return, “No More Words” has transformed into something far more boisterous, like the back-slapping ending of a family reunion, rather than a loving front-porch goodbye kiss.

Once again, New Standard Quintet finds a way to defy expectations.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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