Dan ARAN: New York Family – Whistling Puffer Fish (12/3/18): ****:
(Itai Kriss; flute, Adam Birnbaum; piano, Luke Sellick; bass, Marcos Lopez; percussion; Jainardo Batista; vocals, Dan Aran; drums and percussion)
With the holiday season upon us, we ponder the inevitable family get-togethers with a wrinkled brow. How will things go? Between the stupefactions of food and televised sports there is yet space for querulousness and tedium. All the more satisfying to hear of (and from) a family gathering that comes off splendidly. I refer to a recent outing entitled Dan Aran and his New York Family. On the cover we see six members, summoned for what looks like serious business, a group photo belies just how much fun and affability will ensue. There will be at least three surprises and an overall congeniality between between family members.
The leader, Israeli Dan Aran, will direct from the kit and supply half of the tunes. He wields a fine stick and works in the Bill Stewart tradition of more is more, coloring the canvas with a lot of detail but refraining from metallic side of the palette. The drumming and the well-orchestrated percussion ensembles are highlights of the session. More surprising is the prominent role of the flute, played by Itai Kriss. The idiom is knotty modern jazz with a bebop orientation. Kriss works the darker hues of the flute and shuns pastel decoration. On the first two tracks, the flute delivers almost more than we can assimilate as if in friendly disputation with hard-swinging rhythm section.
The other two surprises involve shifts in musical idiom. First, there is a big Latin infusion; the family from the South has arrived bringing shakers, wood-blocks and an infectious Latin pulse over which the piano and flute solo with real swagger. With the typical ensemble instruments missing–no trumpet or guitar– the superb technical skills and timbres of the rhythm instruments is brought to the fore. There is some heartfelt and purely conventional singing by Jainardo Batista, which achieves an authentic fiesta spirit.
An Eastern member of the family arrives with an oud. Will there be too many cooks in the kitchen? Not at all. Zafer Tawil plies the plectrum with aplomb, and leader Aron has a nice arrangement titled Gits, in which the Middle Eastern instrument makes an eloquent statement. Blues For Tsofi is by comparison purely conventional. Only superior interactions from the group raise it above the run-of the mill medium-tempo sweetness. Throughout, Aran seems comfortable with all the family members, like the uncle who remembers all the kids’ names. His is a virtuosic affability, in which sense of fun and exacting discipline go hand in hand.
There are two Modern Jazz standards here, Peace by Horace Silver and Soul Eyes by Waldron, but they are as fresh as the originals. On the former, it is the oud which takes the head, it is a nervous and high-strung kind of peace to be sure with the whirling semiquavers doubled by the flute. Certainly an odd take on this standard. Soul Eyes is straight 4/4 in a conventional groove. It is the pianist’s finest moment. He shows a fine separation of hands and lots of tricks while capturing the memorable cadences of the tune. The fadeout sounds a little lazy, though (and, sadly, it isn’t the only one).
Even a perfect party has moments of minor annoyance; perhaps the kids manage to disassemble a room while making a collective racket–easily solved by taking away the noise makers. However, a solution is not as easy on the tune Hello Young Lovers, which overlays a all manner of conga-bongo rhythms to a tune which, by the standards of Richard Rodgers, is trite anyway.
What starts like a flute-dominated record ends up as a showcase for pianist Adam Birnbaum. Best is saved for last. Like Someone in Love is a delight. Powerhouse bassist Luke Sellick takes a ruminative solo. Aran must be smiling from the kit at this inspired trio music. One wonders if this trio isn’t the core of the group and if they regularly perform together, for they work together beautifully. This is a fine record, cleverly designed and well-recorded. With just a bit more studio time, it could have been tightened up, but as it is, it contradicts the Tolstoyan dictum that “all happy families are happy in the same way” through its combination of cheerfulness and originality.