A true gauge of a musician’s ability is in how he or she interprets a piece of a genre’s canon. In the jazz world, there are decades’ worth of standards and classic repertoire that are ripe for adaptation. But the ability to excite and challenge listeners comes not only from technical prowess and musical recall, but from the specific approach to reinterpretation, which favors those who prefer a more adventurous approach.
Four such forward thinking musicians came together to create Quartette Oblique, an ensemble which, as their name suggests, approaches the music from a skewed but engaging angle. Brought together by drummer Michael Stephans, the group features saxophone great Dave Liebman, pianist extraordinaire Marc Copland and the stalwart Drew Gress on bass. Their new eponymously titled recording finds them at their most freewheeling in a live performance at the Deer Head Inn in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania.
Stephans is a college professor, holding a Ph.D. and two Master’s degrees, and a writer of poetry and books on jazz. As an open-minded, progressive drummer, he has long been involved in the creative music scene, performing alongside such greats as Bob Brookmeyer, Joe Lovano, Bennie Maupin, Pharoah Sanders and Bob Dorough.
For Quartette Oblique, Stephans reached out to three brilliant, improvising musicians who he knew would trust their instincts and play collective music in an open and exploratory way. Copland is a pianist who Stephans appreciated for decades and who made perfect sense for the ensemble. Having been a longtime fan of woodwind master Dave Liebman, Stephans first worked with Liebman in 2004 and their relationship has truly blossomed. Gress was a perfect pick on bass, as his personal touch and beautiful sound have buoyed Stephans’s drums in a number of rhythm sections in the recent past.
The goal of the ensemble was to generate performances that represented the sum of the musicians’ highly disciplined and creative musical parts. Their collective knowledge and experience would provide a depth of feeling to their takes on classic jazz repertoire. The off-kilter manner in which they approach these pieces makes for some truly brilliant arrangements, most done without prior planning, on the spur of the moment. Fortunately for the jazz world, these pieces were recorded at the Quartette’s appearance at the Deer Head Inn on June 3, 2017.
The program begins with a haunting version of Miles Davis’s “Nardis,” featuring a searching tenor sax and churning rhythm section led by Stephans’s drum work. The late John Abercrombie’s “Vertigo” begins as an introspective piano feature, which concludes with a spry soprano solo from Liebman. A deconstructed version of Schwartz and Dietz’s “You and the Night and the Music” follows with some remarkable group interplay. Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood” receives an elegantly spare treatment that retains the essence of the composer’s gentle message.
Miles Davis’s “All Blues” sounds like an incredible reshuffling of the original with Liebman’s soprano leading to an almost surrealistic reimagining of the tune. Gress’s evocative “Vesper” is a lovely ballad and features the bassist on a distinctive solo flight. The program concludes with Davis’s classic “So What,” a tour de force in group interplay and improvisation with amazing contributions from all.
There is nothing straight-forward in the music of Michael Stephans’ s Quartette Oblique. With trailblazing musicians coming from different backgrounds and musical practices, the Quartette comes together in the spirit of improvisational communication, moving obliquely across dynamic musical landscapes to create a refreshingly unique set of performances that illuminate what jazz writer Whitney Balliett called “The Sound of Surprise.”
released October 12, 2018
Michael Stephans - drums
Dave Liebman - tenor & soprano saxophones
Marc Copland - piano
Drew Gress - bass
supported by 6 fans who also own “Quartette Oblique”
A jazz snapshot of New York City: cosmopolitan, multi-cultural but still deeply rooted in tradition.
The music is hip and up-to-date, but you can always hear Lee Konitz, Charlie Haden or Greg Osby glimpsing around the corner... I really like this mixture! Especially Jason Moran, he can play some free stuff with enormous joy, always cool and sophisticated. I got to hang out with him a couple of times when he played with Greg Osby, great and inspiring person! Florian Arbenz