Unlike the performance of certain forms of popular music, in which musicians dutifully strive to reproduce perfect versions of tracks from a record, a jazz CD release party proceeds from entirely different expectations. Befitting the music's emphasis on improvisation and the element of surprise, a live set of previously recorded compositions serves as a jumping off point for differences born in the heat of the moment. On the first night of Nyack Jazz Week 2012, Richard Sussman brought a quintet into the Turning Point Café in celebration of Continuum (Origin Records, 2012). Sussman's sharp, sophisticated and pleasing compositions invite interpretations by different personnel. He deftly balances a two-horn front line and electric textures, treating his acoustic piano and synthesizer as instruments with different capabilities, and often coaxes horn-like phrasing from the synth.
At one point, Sussman implied the risks in playing his material with little or no rehearsal. "We're going to live dangerously," he said with a smile. "Wish us luck." He needn't have worried because the beauty, complexity and substance of his writing and arranging were fully realized by a band that found the essence of each chart. In addition to the leader on electric keyboard, the group included trumpeter/flugelhornist Joe Magnarelli, alto saxophonist Steve Wilson, bassist Cameron Brown and drummer Jeff Williams. (Only Sussman and Williams were present on Continuum.) Brown and Williams deserve special mention for concocting propulsive combinations of jazz, Latin and funk grooves, as well as finding just the right amount of weight and emphasis for each arrangement and soloist.
Sussman shrewdly programmed the set with variety in mind. He broke up the quintet selections with a feature for Magnarelli, a guest appearance by guitarist Jay Azzolina, and a tune for piano trio. Another point of interest was the contrast between the group's primary soloists. Wilson's solos evinced a tart, cutting tone, precise, agitated bebop-influenced phrasing and a real sense of direction. His "Spare Change" turn offered surprising changes in velocity, a brief run-on line, a quick foray into the horn's lower register, and startling cries that turned dour.
For the most part, Magnarelli preferred a reflective and somewhat indirect approach. His "Meridian" improv constructed a series of unanswered questions that seemed to move sideways against the pulse, introducing a funky motif and ending with some high note flourishes. Sussman changed his identity by turning a few dials on the electric keyboard. His "Mike's Blues" synthesizer solo rode Williams' hard funk beat, bent certain notes and made lines romp and cry, yet maintained a cool, centered feel throughout. An all-too-short turn on "It's Never Too Late" returned to a wobbly, subterranean electric piano sound, with Sussman executing a host of poking, incisive lines and, in response to Brown's and Williams' playful support, displaying a genuine propensity for conventional swing.
The set ended in a rousing fashion with "Continuum," the most challenging of Sussman's compositions from the record. An obsessive sounding introduction in an odd meter, a shoving match between the horns and the rhythm section, trim hard bop themes, and a short, tasty line played by Sussman, were all introduced, developed, and abandoned in a dizzying, unpredictable manner. Williams' drum break briefly suspended the band's obstinate momentum and then hit on rapid, straightforward jazz time. When the solos commenced, Wilson offered snarky leaps and asides, Magnarelli contributed cautious mini-melodies, and Sussman rose from his seat as he struck back at the bass and drums. Williams' climactic turn was comprised of hard, claustrophobic rhythms that abruptly expanded and contracted. The applause which followed the out head was genuine, long lasting, and richly deserved.