By Eric McDowell
With standout releases in the last year from Mary Halvorson, Katharina Weber, Marilyn Crispell, Ingrid Laubrock, Irène Schweizer, and Sarah Buechi, Zurich’s Intakt Records has been doing the good and necessary work of highlighting female artists—not only well-established but also up-and-coming—in a historically male-dominated field (yes, despite notable exceptions and a general openness to all comers). The label builds on this precedent in early 2016 with NYC Five, from Cologne-based co-leaders Angelika Niescier and Florian Weber. Here the saxophonist and pianist (respectively) draw on New York’s deep well of cultural significance and jazz talent, recruiting trumpet player Ralph Alessi, bassist Chris Tordini, and drummer Tyshawn Sorey for an hour of intelligent and gripping music.
Belying the pastoral associations of its title, opener “The Barn Thing” is angular and driving,
with Sorey marking out a steady 7/4 quarter note pulse around which the others weave and jab. In contrast with the tune’s robust three-part head, Weber’s solo—full of tense hesitations—is wonderfully disarming. Taking the hand-off from her co-leader, Niescier’s tightly coiled phrases and upper-register explorations work with rather than against Sorey’s rhythmic simmer to escalate the track’s intensity. After an impressive turn by Alessi, Sorey himself—obviously a special drummer, in my estimation—steps forward for a climactic solo over a stuttering ostinato by the band.
The quintet excels at this kind of rhythmic complexity—mastering difficult material and making the these compositions feel comfortably worn in without losing their heat. Follow-up “And Over” is another good example, with Niescier and Alessi setting out a jaunty 5/4 phrase that suddenly shifts feel and color with the entrance of the rhythm section. Here the work of the first track is cleverly undone as the solos progressively thin and decelerate, this time towards and not away from Weber’s meditative playing. And if well maneuvered, maddeningly technical compositions themselves have lost some of their excitement, the group finds other ways to subvert expectations—for instance “The Liquid Stone,” during whose theme Niescier does no more than provide a busy, buzzing texture for simple punctuation by trumpet, piano, and bass.
On the mellower end of the spectrum, the quintet knows how to play ballads, too. “Invaded” gives Weber’s spacious, patient playing plenty of room first to breathe and then to grow as his lines build in density, inverting the contrasts of the earlier, more hectic tracks. Niescier demonstrates her range here as well with an airier, gentler approach. “Parsifal” highlights some of Alessi’s gorgeously spare and introspective playing. And Tordini gets a solo, too, very welcome but brief and cautious enough to make us wish the album did more to feature him.
Perhaps unfortunately for reviewers—though not for listeners!—at the end of the day NYC Five isn’t about aesthetic experiments or novel concepts but, unpretentious as the album title, the music itself: good writing and even better playing.