Tom Dempsey/Tim Ferguson Quartet – Beautiful Friendship [6/15/12] – Planet Arts 301226, 58:29 ***1/2:
(Tom Dempsey – guitar, co-producer; Tim Ferguson – bass, co-producer; Joel Frahm – tenor saxophone; Eliot Zigmund – drums)
The title of the Tom Dempsey/Tim Ferguson Quartet’s release, Beautiful Friendship, is exactly that. This hour-long, ten-track affair celebrates the lasting amity of bassist Ferguson and guitarist Dempsey, who have performed on and off for a quarter century. The two have often played as a duo for much of their musical past, but for this outing Dempsey and Ferguson included two other long-term associates, saxophonist Joel Frahm and drummer Eliot Zigmund. Although Dempsey and Ferguson have known Zigmund and Frahm for years, Zigmund and Frahm had never before collaborated in a band, so this is a group with an extended shared history who came together for the first time.
The four artists may not be familiar to all jazz fans, but they have a storied background well-suited for the melodic, standard jazz which fills this record. Dempsey has fronted his own ensembles; and worked with Kenny Barron, Roy Haynes, Jack McDuff, Dave Brubeck and others. Ferguson also has an expansive résumé: he can be heard as part of the piano trio Stevens, Siegel & Ferguson; and has been on stage or in the studio with George Cables, Cecil Bridgewater, Eddie Harris, and Mel Lewis, among others. Frahm has played with Maynard Ferguson and Larry Goldings, and was a member of Brad Mehldau’s early ‘90s quartet. Veteran jazz drummer Eliot Zigmund has had a varied career which spans forty years: his past connections include Bill Evans (he was in the Evans trio during the ‘70s), Michel Petrucciani, Vince Guaraldi, Jim Hall, Stan Getz and Benny Golson. Together, this commanding foursome makes their way through originals (two each by Dempsey and Ferguson and one group effort) and several enticing covers.
The band commences with an eddying rendition of Randy Weston’s “Little Niles,” which has been recorded by George Shearing, Phil Woods and loads more. Ferguson opens with a few bars of the main theme, then Zigmund slips in, and then Dempsey and Frahm enter to escalate the melody. The quartet shuttles from unison lines to stacked harmony as they skillfully progress through Weston’s tune. This is one of several pieces where Ferguson shows his accomplished ability to provide a robust swaying bass. Anyone who wants to hear “Little Niles” (as well as three other cuts) should visit Dempsey’s website. Frahm has a warm tone on his saxes: he really shines and sparkles on a rolling seven-minute run through Thad Jones’ swinger “50-21,” which is an inspired, mainstream bop number that is stylish and resourceful, and gives plenty of space for each musician to excel. Dempsey starts Vernon Duke’s affecting ballad, “Autumn in New York,” covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra to John Scofield. Dempsey is the leader on this one, and displays the influence of idols such as Wes Montgomery, but Ferguson also shimmers, and demonstrates a Lester Young-like lightness and grace. Dempsey, Frahm, Ferguson and Zigmund also show their nimbleness on a twirling translation of the album’s title track, penned by Donald Kahn and Stanley Styne. This generates enough momentum and metrical movement to heat up any cool situation: the way Frahm and Dempsey share and trade lines is a wonder, and Ferguson and Zigmund are a rhythmic dream team.
The band’s own compositions fit right in with the recognizable or conventional-sounding standards. On his “Focus Pocus,” Dempsey exhibits a flexible and also refined style which nods to Pat Martino, while maintaining a Montgomery-esque timbre. Dempsey prods the bass and drums, who respond in kind to keep “Focus Pocus” moving along at a brisk pace. “Ted’s Groove,” written for the late jazz guitarist Ted Dunbar, is a dynamic track which has a multilayered impact: while this most definitely grooves, it varies knowingly and one can hear or feel the tonal gravity shift. Ferguson sustains an oscillating groove as well on his “Cakewalk,” a sweet concoction which has an old-school approach with a tweak or two of New Orleans cadence: Frahm’s soprano sax elevates the tune’s welcoming character, while Zigmund cavorts on his drum kit. There is also a nice glow which permeates the group collective, “It’s True,” a lively cut with an inclined improvisatory ascent: this is jamming at its best. Ferguson and Dempsey co-produced this project and kudos to them for putting together a superior quartet. Credit also goes to engineer Sal Mormando, who has an ear for first-rate details and sonic subtlety: this is notable, for example, when Zigmund supplies a light roll across the toms or a gentle brush stroke, or when Ferguson imparts a feathery touch on his bass strings. Beautiful Friendship is an entertaining collection of straightforward jazz: this set is easily recommended to listeners who appreciate swinging, post-bop jazz.
TrackList: Little Niles; 50-21; Focus Pocus; Autumn in New York; It’s True; Cakewalk; Ted’s Groove; Beautiful Friendship; Last Summer; Coming on the Hudson.