Sophisticated Gutbucket Party Music and a Smalls Show Tonight by Nick Hempton

by delarue

On one hand, saxophonist Nick Hempton is a throwback to an earlier era when jazz was the default party music throughout urban areas coast to coast. But he’s also found a way to push the envelope with a funky, percolating organ jazz sound. He’s leading a killer quartet at 10:30 PM tonight, April 10 at Smalls, with Akiko Tsuruga, a similarly sly and inventive player on organ. If you stick around, you can watch the club’s legendary nightly jam session afterward at midnight; cover is $25 cash at the door. Smalls is the only place in town that offers a cash discount: those too lazy or clueless to use cash have to fork over $40.

Hempton released his latest album Slick – streaming at Bandcamp – late last year, with his longtime “dream team” bandmates Peter Bernstein on guitar, Kyle Koehler on organ and Fukushi Tainaka on drums. What hits you right upside the head is that this about tunes, not just ostentatious soloing: it’s rare that a saxophonist plays so few notes as a bandleader, yet makes them all count.

They open with The Runaround, a purposeful, catchy stroll. The highlights are in the subtleties, most notably in Tainaka’s little against-the-current flourishes. Hempton has a thing for noir, exemplified here in the latinized Vegas shuffle Liar’s Dice, which he takes in a more playfully shuffling direction. The cotton is high, but in the distance, in Born to Be Blue, a lingering but purposeful ballad.

Hempton leads the group through the lickety-split volleys of Short Shrift with his lightning articulacy on alto sax. Switching back to tenor, he salutes his jazz-loving octogenarian neighbor in the energetically bluesy swing tune Upstairs Eddy, testament to how fast New York musicians learn who our friends (and enemies) are.

He and the band take a balmy tiptoe swing through their take of People Will Say We’re in Love: one of the coolest moments is where Bernstein takes a solo and Koehler adjusts his drawbars to where it’s almost as if he’s playing rhythm guitar. Likewise, the guitarist leads a very subtle diversion in Hempton’s melody to introduce a slinky Koehler solo in the next track, Snake Oil.

The Gypsy here is a laid-back gutbucket organ jazz regular who winks at all the girls, but they love him anyway. Hempton saves the most expansive tracks for last – who knows, maybe his approach to recording live in the studio without headphones resulted in having some extra time left over. So they made the most of it, first in Fryin’ With Fergus, a bluesy midtempo tune where Hempton gets to indulge in some carefree but devious tradeoffs with Koehler and Tainaka. They close with The Masquerade Is Over, giving the wistful changes an optimistic swing. Wine-hour escapist music for those outside of Ukraine who still have electric power? Sure, why not. After all we’ve been through these past two years, we deserve music like this.