Tenor saxophonist and clarinetist Ted Nash, guitarist Steve Cardenas, and bassist Ben Allison come together to take on Leonard Bernstein's original score for Steven Spielberg's film adaptation of the Broadway musical "West Side Story", slated for release in 2020, in their Plastic Sax Records album, Somewhere Else: West Side Story Songs.
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Ted Nash with Steve Cardenas, Ben Allison
Somewhere Else: West Side Story Songs (Plastic Sax Records)
If more proof was ever needed that “West Side Story” remains the most beloved of classic Broadway musicals, it’s the fact that Steven Spielberg has recently directed his own film version; slated for 2020 release, it’s also his first musical production. (It will also be recognized as a remake of the award-winning 1961 film, the basic source of the show’s continued popularity.)
Granted that this “Romeo and Juliet” adaptation has a timeless theme of racial and social conflict that couldn’t be more relevant today, it’s Leonard Bernstein’s score (with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim) that also maintains perennial appeal. Brimming with memorable songs–some rousing, some menacing, some unbearably touching – the score has resonated with generations of listeners since the show premiered in 1957.
Commemorating Bernstein’s centenary, the trio of the tenor saxophonist and clarinetist Ted Nash, the guitarist Steve Cardenas, and the bassist Ben Allison take on his most popular work with a gusto touched by obvious reverence. And in doing so they triumphantly celebrate both the illustrious composer, and a key stylistic influence for the trio: Jimmy Giuffre. By casting themselves in the mode of Giuffre’s classic winds-guitar-bass trio of 1956 (which featured Jim Hall and introduced the landmark piece “Train and the River”) Nash and his compatriots pay tribute to the cool, chamber jazz aesthetic that, despite its subdued charm, tends to slip in and out of the popular jazz imagination. The character of the trio, which balances the virtuosity of the individual players amidst rock solid ensemble unity, declares itself a perfect conduit for Bernstein’s indelible music.
Yet a listener is continually caught up in the seeming paradox of how music so inherently rhythmic in nature can be expressed with such aplomb by a band that hasn’t a percussion instrument in sight. The key is that each trio member calls on his own inner drummer, summoning up a syncopated panache that keeps the performances fluid and exciting. On the score’s percolating tunes the trio snap and bite – with the consistently inventive Nash channeling an assertive approach on tenor that is anything but cool inspired – while also maintaining a deliberate composure.
The arrangements, primarily by Nash (a key factor of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra as an instrumentalist, composer and arranger) augmented by contributions from Cardenas and Allison, keep the brilliant sheen of Bernstein’s creations always in view, while leaving room for compelling improvisations and spirited interplay. “Tonight” opens with two-and-a-half minutes of delightful improvised counterpoint between all three band mates, while “America” bobs along to what sounds like a warm weather get together between Giuffre and Sonny Rollins. “Maria,” with Nash on sprightly clarinet, bounces with an unaccustomed spring thanks to Allison’s jaunty bassline; Allison also provides the slippery bedrock for a disarming duet with Nash on “Cool.” “A Boy Like That,” an extended “Something’s Coming,” and the penultimate version of “Somewhere,” taken at a brisker tempo than usual, exhibit the unforced symmetry of this commendable ensemble.
The ballads – “One Hand , One Heart,” highlighting Nash’s aching tenor, “I Have a Love” (a Cardenas-Nash duet with more fetching tenor) and the closing reprise of “Somewhere” – are predictably expressive but blissfully free of maudlin emotionality.
While “I Feel Pretty” and “Gee, Officer Krupke” may be missed, Somewhere Else makes a robust case for the continued popularity and adaptability of this brilliant score as well as the hopeful endurance of a superb trio. (Steve Futterman)