An Imaginative, Hard-Swinging Change of Pace and a Smalls Gig by Saxophonist Nick Hempton
Saxophonist Nick Hempton has been a regular in the Smalls scene for at least a decade. His compositions swing hard, with an eclectic, ambitious edge and frequent detours into noir. His next gig there is July 14 at 10:30 with a killer, counterintuitive organ groove band including guitarist Mark Whitfield, organist Kyle Koehler and drummer Fukushi Tainaka
Hempton’s most recent album, Night Owl – streaming at Spotify – is a good introduction to what he can do with that band onstage – and a considerable change from his previous work. It features Koehler and Tainaka along with another purist guitarist, Peter Bernstein, playing a mix of originals and some pretty radical reinventions of standards.
Bernstein adds an unexpectedly bracing, clustering attack,echoed by Koehler while the band swing the blues in the album’s opening, title track. I Remember Milady’s is a somewhat wistfully altered, similarly bluesy cha-cha with a characteristically smoky solo from Hempton, Koehler launching a river with his.
The band shuffle with lickety-split verve through their take of After You’ve Gone, the bandleader making his scampering lines look effortless, Bernstein having fun with a series of spacy hammer-on phrases. Then they do I’m a Fool to Want You as a brooding bolero: the shadowy ambience of Bernstein’s cautious phrasing, Koehler’s muted backdrop, Tainaka’s brushwork and the smoke from Hempton’s tenor sax is where the noir really kicks in.
From there the band flip the script with the blithe 10th Street Turnaround: it’s akin to what Jimmy Smith might have done with a New Orleans ballad. Corner Bistro – a shout-out to a rare West Village landmark that’s still standing – has a slinky 60s funk shuffle lurking just beneath its shiny, somewhat acidic surface. Then the band shift into low gear with the balmy southern elegance of It Shouldn’t Happen to a Dream.
Hempton’s catchy riffage and a long, majestic Koehler solo contrast with the massed, enigmatic harmonies behind them in Listen Hard, Speak Easy. They close the album with the expansive Macao Mood, a rather jubilant swing number that doesn’t sound the slightest bit Portuguese. Anybody who thinks that all organ-and-tenor records sound the same (are you listening, Harvey?) ought to hear this.