Alexander McCabe’s alto saxophone is immediately arresting, plunging into the early arrangements of Quiz with a sort of instant congeniality. The density of the arrangements draw as a brand of after-the-fact insight, almost, and the suddenly enchanting melodies prove mind-altering.
Quiz, McCabe’s first new recording as a leader in half a decade, is a perfect blend of instant gratification and subtle movement. His quartet is game, readily shifting from off-meter deliveries to traditional jazz throughout the album’s seven tracks.
McCabe’s influences are front and centre. “I learned as a traditionalist, but I want to build on the past,” he says. “I listened to the older guys first.”
Those older guys, cats like Charlie Parker and Ben Webster, can be heard in McCabe’s stout lines and distinctive, brash blasts. The Boston saxophonist/composer draws on the flexibility of “The Brute” to shift from the go-ahead blasting of upbeat stompers to the dear wailing of slower, more measured passages.
Pianist Uri Caine, bassist Ugonna Ukegwo and drummers Greg Hutchinson and Rudy Royston accompany McCabe. The band’s charisma results in a number of highly nourishing musical conversation pieces. Couched in intricacy but farmed on pure fun, this is one spirited crowd.
The record opens with “Weezie’s Waltz,” a challenging piece that alternates between traditional waltz time and 5/4. The players are up to the test and they boom and wrench at the song’s design to make it their own. The track is dedicated to McCabe’s niece and generates energy thanks in large part to Royston’s charismatic drumming.
A lot of Quiz is about pulling back from pure chaos.
Check out how McCabe and Co. toy with free jazz on “St. Pat,” for instance. The launch finds seemingly arbitrary sax blasts attempting to fit over a march beat. In lesser hands, the piece would have degenerated into mind-numbing scuffling, but McCabe pulls back on the lever and slips the phrasing over Royston’s drums. Caine lets his funk flag fly, bearing down on the arrangement with concentrated soul straight from the source.
McCabe’s best quality, in my view, is his meticulousness. He accomplishes gracefully controlled playing without resorting to clichés and that’s worth a lot in this day and age. A pure case in point is how the former member of ska band Mephiskapheles scurries around “Kalido,” picking off notes with care over the sturdy substance of Caine’s keys. Hutchinson handles the beat, chiming in with his sound, resourceful kit.
Quiz is a record of stable, calculated control. The arrangements are deviously intricate and the playing is beautiful, offering the listener plenty to discover on repeat listens. McCabe is clearly a student of the game and his keen awareness demonstrates the pure joy of what can happen when great musicians meet splendid charts.