As players from classical backgrounds become more skilled improvisers, listeners have the great fortune of hearing jazz played using a wider range of instruments. Thanks to the innovations of John Zorn’s small string groups and swinging quartets from Turtle Island to Radio String Quartet Vienna, the days of an improvising string quartet as an oddity are past. On its latest release “Places” the young Polish Atom String Quartet gets a chance to add another chapter to the jazz string story.
The good news is that the Atom boys play their pants off. Indeed, all the elements of a top-tier classical string quartet are there. The ensemble sound is big and rich, the rhythmic connections and phrasing are in perfect sync, everybody plays with light speed lyricism, and they’ve got intonation and dynamic shading most young groups would kill for. Likewise, there are no technical flaws in the improvisation department, with David Lubowicz regularly showing impressive runs in the 70s Jean-Luc Ponty style and Krzysztof Lenczowki playing cello basslines and solos with rhythmic and motivic invention on tracks like “Fade Out” and “Irish Pub.”
The bad news is that transferring the jazz sound to string quartet is no longer an innovative act in itself, and while the album often sounds good, it rarely stretches into the unknown or shows much stylistic individuality. We’ve come along way from the eighties and Kronos Quartet’s pubescent noodling over stiff blues charts, but its entirely expected that a string group can write and play well at this point. The surprises on “Places” come in the clever arrangements on the aforementioned “Irish Pub,” and slick classical/world fusion on “Song For Mario” and the cleverly written “Fugato & Allegrina.” Aside from these catchy melodic moments, there’s not a lot of the compositional or improvisational risk taking that are so important in contemporary jazz.
The group generally manages to avoid clichés as they try their hands at many different jazz angles, but they fall into a pit on “LaTina.” The idea of throwing a salsa or Brazilian feel in on a tune with a Spanish pun in the name has been played out since the early sixties, and when the montuno feel as stiff as it is here, it’s better avoided. Likewise, the cover of Chick Corea’s “Spain” is a real miss, capturing neither the lyricism of Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez” or the composer’s drive and rhythmic brinkmanship.
Nonetheless, “Places” is a solid jazz record, played by excellent musicians. If these guys were a typical straight-ahead quartet it would be pleasing and proficient, and it probably catches the ear a bit more due to its instrumentation. The question is, how can the Atom String Quartet step beyond the impressive string group level and into the realm of jazz greatness?