Jazz CD Reviews

Scott Healy Ensemble/Scott Healy-Glenn Alexander Quartet – Hudson City Suite; Northern Light – both Hudson City Records

Two distinctly different projects show the creativity of a relatively unknown keyboardist/composer.

Published on January 9, 2013

Scott Healy Ensemble/Scott Healy-Glenn Alexander Quartet – Hudson City Suite; Northern Light –  both Hudson City Records

Scott Healy Ensemble/Scott Healy-Glenn Alexander Quartet – Hudson City Suite, 56:10 [12/4/12]; Northern Light, 38:22 [1/22/13] – Hudson City Records (both self) ****:

(Hudson City Suite: Scott Healy – arranger, piano; Tim Hagans – trumpet; Kim Richmond – alto & soprano saxophone; Tom Luer – clarinet, tenor saxophone; Doug Webb – baritone saxophone; Bill Churchville – trumpet; Brian Swartz – trumpet, Flugelhorn; Andrew Lippman – trombone; George Thatcher – bass trombone, tuba; Carlitos Del Puerto – bass; Bill Wysaske – drums; Alex Budman – tenor saxophone, clarinet; Jeff Driskill – alto & soprano saxophone; Glen Berger – tenor & baritone saxophone, bass clarinet; Kye Palmer – trumpet)

(Northern Light: Scott Healy – piano, synthesizer; Glenn Alexander – guitar; Kermit Driscoll – bass; Jeff Hirshfield – drums)

Pianist/composer Scott Healy is not well known in jazz circles, but anyone who has watched Conan O’Brien’s various late-night TV shows has seen the keyboardist, as part of O’Brien’s house band. Based on two new ventures (the Ellingtonian Hudson River Suite, which came out in December, 2012; and the heretofore unissued 1991 session, Northern Light, released in January), jazz fans should take a closer listen to Healy’s multi-faceted resourcefulness.

The one-hour, nine-track outing, Hudson City Suite, which gestated for nearly 20 years, is influenced greatly by Duke Ellington’s music in general, and to a lesser extent directly to particular Ellington efforts, including nods to “The Queen’s Suite” (written for Queen Elizabeth II in 1959 but not officially distributed until 1976), and “Mood Indigo.” Healy explains in the liner notes that, “People always talk about Ellington creating his own musical universe with sound. I’m trying to do that same thing with this project.” The conceptual framework, and Healy’s creative context, is also described in a brief, online promotional clip. As Ellington did with some of his works, Healy attempts to thematically link his separate pieces: in this case, Healy crafted material which conjures a specific place, the long-gone area of Hudson City, which existed between 1855 and 1870, and was incorporated into Jersey City, New Jersey. Healy’s ambitious large-band jazz undertaking contains through-composed arrangements which cast off the typical head-solo-head construction in favor of stream-of-consciousness structures, where Healy daringly rejects a strict, jazz-like form. Healy’s brass charts are intricate and complex: sometimes he discards a traditional rhythm section, other times he exercises counterpoint, and he even employs seemingly out-of-time charts, where longer rhythms or cycles are overlaid atop shorter ones. And yet, comparable to Ellington, Healy never abandons strong melodic contours. The memorable “Central Trolley” commences with a light swing, and later the pace quickens and Healy shifts the large ensemble selection into a slimmer, trio setting, with effective solos throughout by assorted bandmembers. “Princess Tongora” has an iridescent, exotic quality. Here, the group sounds like it is much freer than it really is: the considerate percussive elements (from bass, piano, drums and horns) are all written out, although it may not appear that way to the majority of listeners. Blues lovers will find the New Orleans-steeped “Franklin Steps” an enjoyable example of RnB and jazz coming together, where a rock-solid groove runs under a fiery sax improvisation.  Hudson City Suite concludes with “Prelude,” the first cut Healy penned for this collection, and the most Ellington-esque number, which has a cinematic characteristic: one can almost picture a guy wearing a fedora, who steps into a quiet tavern to order a whiskey and rye. “Where ya from,” the bartender queries the man. “Hudson City, what’s it to ya?”

The quartet album, Northern Light (which can be streamed in advance of the January 22nd release date), is a relic found in a closet. The six tracks, which total 38 minutes, were recorded in 1991, and then forgotten. Healy and guitarist Glenn Alexander rediscovered the music when they heard a tape cassette copy of the original DAT, 2-track digital recording and realized they had a gem which has stood the test of time. This is decidedly different jazz than Healy’s Hudson River Suite. This features four musicians (Healy on piano and synth; Alexander on electric and acoustic guitar; Kermit Driscoll on bass; and Jeff Hirshfield on drums) who perform fusion music in the realm of Pat Metheny, the Ralph Towner/John Abercrombie collaborations, and to a smaller degree, Mike Stern or Kurt Rosenwinkel. The six numbers are all originals, evenly split between Alexander and Healy. Alexander’s “Christmas Day,” subsequently redone for his 1993 album, Rainbow’s Revenge, indicates a dedicated Metheny inspiration (although no worse than Rosenwinkel has sometimes shown). Another cool-weather cut is Healy’s “November,” a solemn, Midwest-flavored mood-piece with delicate offerings from Driscoll, Healy and Alexander on acoustic guitar. This has a slow-flow ambiance which fans of certain ECM projects (Abercrombie, Towner, et al), or of Bill Frisell’s 1990s pastoral endeavors, will appreciate. While Alexander and Healy often have the lion’s share of the soloing on all of the tunes, a highlight is hearing Driscoll and Hirshfield. They reveal an empathic ability which evokes Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, or Marc Johnson with Joey Baron: they let the music open up in understated ways, reinforcing the meditative music in natural but creative manners. Audiophiles should note the DAT material for Northern Light was mastered beautifully, and the less-is-more guitars, subtle synths, sparse piano, gentle brushwork and discreet bass lines are nicely rendered, the opposite of the overproduction which plagued too many 1990s CDs.


Hudson City Suite: Transfer; Central Trolley; Summit Avenue Conversation; Princess Tongora; Interlude; Franklin Steps; Gaslight; Koko on the Boulevard; Prelude.

Northern Light: Spiral; Christmas Day; November; To the Point; Chimes; Northern Light

—Doug Simpson

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