Alexander McCabe Quiz
By Nathaniel Rolnick

Saxophonist Alexander McCabe's new release Quiz is a breath of fresh air. It's not a new sound, but McCabe and his group play intense post-bop with a welcome focus on expression and creativity. Jazz, in all its complex splendor, can be cold and impenetrable. All the superb, wooden-sounding jazz technicians on the scene blend together into a forgettable fog. McCabe and his quartet know the name of the game is spirit and artfulness. There's plenty of shredding, too.

McCabe plays the dense, “wall of sound” style first imagined by John Coltrane. It's a constant flow of notes that spreads out over the tune like a sheet. When done right it's more like a “wall of melody,” and if you could slow it down every lick would be a singable gem. McCabe plays that kind of high-caliber, melodic, Coltrane-derived improvisation. He's supported by four other terrific players including Ugonna Okegwo on bass, whose bass lines mix long notes and fast runs to create a wavering flow instead of a steady bounce. The shifting rhythms complement McCabe's perpetually gushing notes. Uri Caine is fantastic on piano, he channels the best of McCoy Tyner melded with his own distinctive approach and his solos are really a pleasure to listen to.

Five of the seven tracks are original tunes. McCabe's compositions are good but not outstanding. “St. Pat” is a clever stab at Caribbean flavored jazz (and homage to Sonny Rollins' classic “St. Thomas”) but it's not tuneful enough to be a winner. The most interesting track is the jazz standard “Good Morning Heartache.” It's a 12-minute barrage of jazz styles with a cascading free improvisation, a sentimental rendition of the lyrical melody, some bossa nova and straight-ahead swing. Most of the disc is straight-ahead and accessible, but there are esoteric moments too. Caine and McCabe drop blistering atonal passages into their solos from time to time.

Quiz is a terrific listen. The group plays wonderfully together and each of them is an excellent soloist. They emulate John Coltrane's legendary quartet but prove there's more to be done with the approach he invented. I give McCabe and his crew high marks for keeping the music vibrant and memorable.

[4 stars]


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