PSYCHEDELIC ECLECTICS With the YNSQ, you never knew what was going to happen next.
Back in the late '70s to the mid '80s, the World Saxophone Quartet were jolly green giants walking the earth. It was a superstar band of four avant-garde masters — Julius Hemphill, David Murray, Oliver Lake, and Hamiet Bluiett — who filled halls with their out-there explorations grounded in deep blues, hard funk, and a sense of high theatricality. At the same time, San Francisco's Rova Quartet were pushing a more experimental-improv agenda. And in Boston, it was Your Neighborhood Saxophone Quartet who barnstormed clubs, festivals, local-access cable-TV shows, and alternative spaces throughout New England and eventually the European circuit in the '80s and early '90s. Dissolved in 1996, YNSQ returned for a Jazz Week concert in 2007, and they've performed a few shows since. Now looking to become a regularly working band again, they're holding a 31st-anniversary show next Friday at the First Congregational Church in Harvard Square.
Organized by Tom Hall and Cercie Miller, and soon to include Steve Adams and Danny Bittker, YNSQ were originally a rehearsal band who got together to play saxophone music and transcriptions, everything from classical sax-quartet pieces to Renaissance music and rags. Heavily inspired by the WSQ, they brought the same mix of funk and avant adventure to their shows and their CDs, but with their own particular humor. Their name itself was a joke on the WSQ's worldliness.
"We were called smart-alecky by [Phoenix critic] Bob Blumenthal," recalls Allan Chase, who joined the band shortly after their formation in 1981, following the departure of Bittker for the West Coast. "But it got serious pretty quickly." He means both as a working band writing original music and in their approach — "more mature in our references, and more personal."
Although each member had his or her own tastes, the general æsthetic was what Chase calls "psychedelic eclecticism" — the kind that was extolled by the WSQ, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and other avant-garde jazz groups of the era including the Sun Ra Arkestra. That might be funk, Latin music, or, in the YNSQ's case, punk rock. "We were interested in all of jazz history, and not just whatever was new and hip at the time — from Lester Young and Sidney Bechet to Roscoe Mitchell." There was, Chase adds, the thrill of concerts by the likes of Ra and the AEC where "you never knew what was going to happen next."
On an album like Boogie Stop Shuffle, you can hear the band tear with ferocity into the Charles Mingus title track as well as James Brown's "I'll Go Crazy." And then there's their own extensive book of originals. On Hall's "First Time," the tricky theme has a bop big-band jauntiness that breaks down into duo sections and hocketing interplay, then builds up to giddy free four-way conversation before coming back to tightly arranged coda. Not only can't you tell what's coming next, you're never sure where the piece will end up.
For players and composers, sax quartets were a chance to experiment with extended counterpoint as well as play in a working band that didn't require the services of itinerant, in-demand rhythm players. And as Chase says, "It's fun to get together with other saxophone players and deal with saxophone music." For listeners, despite the limited tonal palette, it was a chance to revel in heady collective improvisation as well as in the funk inclinations of a band like YNSQ.
The anniversary show on April 8 will include current members Chase, Miller, Hall, and Joel Springer as well as alumni Bittker (now with Rova) and Adams.
Gretchen Parlato, who comes to the Regattabar next Thursday, has been a jazz singer to watch ever since she won the 2004 Thelonious Monk Institute International Vocal Competition. Although impressed with her musicianship and her own brand of psychedelic eclecticism (Ellington, Stevie Wonder, Wayne Shorter), I haven't been totally won over by her clenched, breathy vocal delivery. It was intimate, and skillful, but I wanted to hear her sing out.
Listening to Parlato's new The Lost and Found (out this Tuesday on ObliqSound), I'm ready to change my tune. Here again, she's all over the map as far as source material, including Simply Red's "Holding Back the Years" and Lauryn Hill's tune for Mary J. Blige, "All That I Can Say." And she hasn't changed her vocal approach. But in this case, I can't resist her musicality and the overall unity of her conception.
Working with pianist and composer Robert Glasper as a co-producer, Parlato makes strong connections among jazz, hip-hop, and Brazilian music (Paulinho da Viola's "Alô Alô" is included). The fast samba beat, the light, fast snare patter of drum 'n' bass, and the dotted rhythms of jazz swing seem all of a piece here. (No small credit to Derek Hodge on electric and acoustic basses and drummer Kendrick Scott.) There are pieces written with Glasper and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire as well as with her bandmates here — Hodge, saxophonist Dayna Stephens, guitarist Alan Hampton, and pianist Taylor Eigsti. The simplicity of the lyrics, with their concerns about the transitory nature of life and love, works in Parlato's favor; pushing the songs rhythmically through either repetition or scatting, she infuses them with a power that's alternately incantatory and meditative. And on her setting of Shorter's "Ju Ju," she not only holds her own as a "horn" against Stephens's tenor but builds a towering improvisation. Her band at the Regattabar will include Eigsti, Hampton (on bass), and Scott.
ILONA KUDINA QUINTET | Scullers, DoubleTree Guest Suites Hotel, 400 Soldiers Field Road, Boston | April 6 @ 8 pm | $20 | 617.562.411
GRETCHEN PARLATO | Regattabar, Charles Hotel, 1 Bennett St, Cambridge | April 7 @ 7:30 pm [$20] + 10 pm [$18] | 617.536.5390
YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD SAXOPHONE QUARTET, First Congregational Church, 11 Garden St, Cambridge | April 8 @ 8 pm | $10 | freeimprovisation.com