Music
3:33 pm
Tue February 4, 2014

Hush Point -- Album Review

Hush Point’s debut self-titled album, released in May 21, 2013, is a breath of fresh air in today’s jazz scene. Hush Point is a group – consisting of alto saxophonist Jeremy Udden, trumpeter John McNeil, bassist Aryeh Kobrinsky, and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza – that really functions as a band, not just a collection of individual musicians brought together for a recording date. The album not only features tunes by Udden, McNeil, and Kobrinsky, but also has extensive collective improvisation. The effortlessly blending of their individual voices during collective improvisation illustrates how in tune with each others’ thought processes this group is. The band’s near-telepathic communicative ability is especially evident on the album’s opening tune, a rendition of Jimmy Guiffre’s “Iranic.” Hush Point plays this song as a piece about dialogue, alternating moments of call-and-response with counterpoint playing. By placing this song as the album’s first track, Hush Point is showing the listener how important playing and improvising together as a group is for this band. The album’s second piece, a bouncy playful McNeil number called “Peachful,” highlights the group dynamic again with a contrapuntal section by McNeil and Udden, filled with fluttering improvised lines from both. McNeil and Udden’s comfort playing together also comes through very clearly on McNeil’s “Finely Done,” in which both horn players echo and complete each other’s melodic ideas like a married couple finishing each other’s sentences.

Recorded earlier this year in Brooklyn, NY, Hush Point is an album of unique material with an obvious knowledge of the jazz tradition. It seems to occupy the space between Gerry Mulligan’s pianoless quartet and Ornette Coleman’s. This is particularly apparent on “Get Out,” a piece by McNeil in which I can’t tell if his playing reminds me more of Chet Baker or Don Cherry. This album elegantly straddles the line between cool and free jazz and ultimately teaches a very important lesson about what it means to make free jazz: namely, free jazz can be beautiful. Too often any jazz described as free is assumed to be loud and atonal. By incorporating cool[1] harmonic influences in a malleable way, Hush Point creates music with the emotional expressiveness of free jazz that won’t scare off lovers of more traditional styles. The best example of this is Udden’s “Fathers and Sons,” which features plenty of color from Sperrazza during extended rhythmically free sections that eventually dissolve into short unaccompanied solos by first Udden and then McNeil.

Sperrazza’s drumming throughout the album deserves a little more attention. His low-key brushwork is easy to overlook, but his crisp cymbals and amazing dynamic range provide extraordinary color on each song. Listening to the album, this fact becomes apparent on the seventh track, “New Bolero,” which is the only piece to feature Sperazza using sticks instead of brushes. He also spends most of the song on the drums as opposed to the cymbals. These two minor differences change the song’s mood dramatically, adding a darker feeling than anywhere else on the album.

One standout track is “Bar Talk,” in which Udden all but abandons harmony to craft a piece based exclusively on short melodic fragments (obviously inspired by Béla Bartók, as the title implies) that features intricate backgrounds, seamlessly weaving his own and McNeil’s improvisation with the composed sections. Another highlight is McNeil’s arrangement of the second Jimmy Guiffre piece on the album, “The Train and the River.” Most great songs about trains – from Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train” to Johnny Cash’s “Folsam Prison Blues” – capture the feeling of sitting still and moving at the same time, i.e. relaxing in a comfortable seat while rolling across the country at 90mph. Normally this is done with the rhythm section pushing forward while the melody seems to sit  just the beat, but Hush Point reverse this cliché. Here McNeil, Udden, and Sperrazza all push the rhythm forward together, while bassist Kobrinsky really lays  into the beats, seemingly stretching them with heavy quarter notes on beats three and four of many bars, as well as the frequent use of peddle tones.

The final track, “Cat Magnet,” composed by Kobrinsky, is the album’s biggest curveball. It has the album’s most straightforward harmonic progression and lyrical melody, which is played by McNeil with support from Udden. The improvisations that follow the head stay true to the expressive melodic content. This exemplifies perhaps the most remarkable characteristic of Hush Point: in a jazz culture often focused on flashy playing, Hush Point is a band with chops that instead focuses on the feeling of the music above all else.

[1] (that’s cool as in 1950s West Coast/cool jazz)