Jerome Sabbagh Quartet
As the title and cover art suggest, tenor saxophonist Jerome Sabbagh invokes tradition on the first album he’s ever recorded with a pianist. In fact, Sabbagh chose this supporting trio with utmost taste, tapping pianist NEA Jazz Master Kenny Barron, bassist Joe Martin, and drummer Johnathan Blake to record a set that sounds as if it’s drawn directly from dark, intimate jazz club (we no longer use the term “smoky” these days). Sabbagh is more widely known for his own original material, often rendered with electric guitarists Ben Monder and Greg Tuohey. Yet, the story that led to this project dates to when Sabbagh was fortunate enough as a teenager to hear saxophone legend Stan Getz accompanied by Barron in Paris. Thirty years later, Sabbagh was playing standards and some of his originals at Barron’s house, testing the waters so to speak. Obviously, they got along just well, prompting Sabbagh to recruit in-demand bassist Martin and for Barron to tap his regular trio drummer, the highly versatile Blake. While we’ll spare all the meticulous details about the recording process, note that these sessions were mastered by Bernie Grundman, resulting in immaculate sound quality.
The quartet swings from the outset on the Sabbagh original, the title track, which certainly lives up to its name and captures Barron at his vibrant best. Tadd Dameron’s mid-tempo piece, “On a Misty Night” vividly displays the terrific chemistry Barron and Sabbagh have established in such a short time. Barron’s solo is so elegant here, inspiring Sabbagh’s highly lyrical lines and in turn, Martin’s tasteful pizzicato statement. In a similar but in an even more aching way, the two render Billy Strayhorn’s “A Flower Is a Lonesome Thing,” chosen specifically for this session after Sabbagh heard Barron perform it solo at the Village Vanguard. Sabbagh’s warm approach and Barron’s delicate touch combine to produce as deeply affectionate a ballad as you’ll hear in any recording. It alone is worth listening to this record.
The middle of the album features two Sabbagh originals. “Elson’s Energy” is inspired by a childhood friend from Brazil, who recently reconnected with the saxophonist. The shared love of Brazilian music between Sabbagh and Barron is accented by the Blake’s terrific kit work, keeping the joyous tune bristling. The quartet returns to its highly melodic, lyrical mode in “Slay the Giant,” yet another testament to the sympatico feel between the Sabbagh and Barron who play with the utmost ease and freedom. There’s nary a note or chord that seems forced, with Martin and Blake equally restrained in support.
Sabbagh and Barron become a duo again, concluding the album with two Monk tunes. “We See” is the typical angular, bouncy fare we associate with the piano icon while “Ask Me Now” is their gorgeous reading of a ballad, featuring some of Sabbagh’s most earnest, tender playing on an album filled with several other examples.
Traditional jazz has rarely sounded so refined, yet heartfelt as it does with this can’t miss quartet who deliver a flawless recording.
- Jim Hynes