‘Soul Eyes’ is the very long opener here, a famous Mal Waldron piece given a dusting down last year by Kandace Springs who wrung out every drop of the pathos in the piece in a vocals version. The quartet’s Tim Armacost like most tenorists worth their salt will know the John Coltrane version not that he is foolish enough to try to embark on the thankless task of mimicking it. Actually most of the tunes here are “famous,” that is the whole point of the NYSQ (New York Standards Quartet) and more broadly standards. Firmly instrumental and soaked in Hank Mobley-esque hard bop and far beyond, its bustling nature full of chord changes and a challenging pace set by former Herbie Hancock drummer Gene Jackson the quartet fronted by Armacost on tenor on this track, soprano popping up a little more inconsequentially elsewhere, and displaying very aware comping by pianist David Berkman aided by the fast fingered running bass of Daiki Yasukagawa, you definitely know where you are with the quartet. Of course it sounds very retro, you have to enter their world, which sounds like a classic jazz club whether Ronnie Scott’s or probably more appropriately given the New York tag in the band name the Village Vanguard, the atmosphere might as well have been pumped in like collected air from a lost era and shipped to Japan where it was recorded not far from Mount Fuji two years ago.
‘Ask Me Now’ by Monk which follows is less modernist than some interpretations allow and Armacost is able to show his more emotive side on a bright treatment when he solos and even more so on the slow and yearning ‘In A Sentimental Mood.’ More of a coast than the driving no holds barred work out he made with Alex Garnett on Bunch of 5’s Andromeda it is encouraging to hear Armacost sound more relaxed and not get so hung up on showing his mighty chops and certainly ‘Sentimental Mood’ has a gravitas to it that easily indicates his long achieved maturity and ability to live in the song, no matter that this slab of core Ellingtonia is so familiar, Jackson’s cymbal colouration towards the end a tasteful coda.
The title track ‘Sleight of Hand’ a contrafact based on Gershwin’s ‘But Not For Me’ has a jaunty fun feel to it using piano and sax to follow each other around while bass and drums potter along as if waiting for the first solo that just happens to turn into a a feelgood affair thanks to Berkman who brings the tinkling tempo down to a comfortable loping-along that suits everyone just fine and goes to provide another indication of how laidback the whole album is.
The dreamy thoughtful side of the album emerges once again on ‘I Fall In Love Too Easily’ led off by the pianist and flavoured by Armacost’s soprano sound which is more mottled than piercing, again that civilised shaping of timbre a significant factor on an album where nothing jarrs. Around for more than a decade with five albums so far, on this latest album going in to record after a tour I must confess to glazing over ‘This I Dig Of You’ to be honest, it just seemed more of a romp and is to me anyway a weaker spot of the album because the guys just love this Mobley swinger too much maybe, but the interest level returns again courtesy of the character injected again so very slowly on the swooning Herb Ellis classic ‘Detour Ahead’ Armacost demonstrating once again how fine an interpreter of the ballad he consistently proves to be. Wrapped up by ‘Lover Man’ the tune faded in at the beginning mid piano solo, the edit actually actually making you feel you are there that bit more, Sleight of Hand is out now, won’t change the world but hearing a band play standards well as the quartet do is always better than hearing a combo tackle complicated undercooked originals if the composing is not robust enough as is often the case. Released just the other day, streaming above