Tuesday August 2nd, marked the first onstage reunion for the New Century Jazz Quintet in months, uniting the group for the first time since recording its third and latest album, Arise, in May.
The first performance, at Jazz Standard in New York’s Gramercy district, served up a heavy swing set with an urgency and swiftness suited for an album-release event.
Led by the Grammy-winning drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. and the pianist Takeshi Ohbayashi, the Quintet allowed few rests, save for the occasional audience interaction. “We are celebrating many things,” Owens said, after opening with the album’s joyous up-tempo title track. “I love these guys very deeply.”
Owens added that the Quintet, a tight ensemble with a large Japanese following, was founded on their admiration for the late drummer Art Blakey. His spirit was resurrected throughout the night, first with an arrangement of the pianist Ray Bryant’s composition “Chicken An Dumplings.”
Technically, the Quintet was a member short, with the bassist Yasushi Nakamura in Japan mourning the death of his father. Alex Claffy proved a capable stand-in for the short-notice gig. “I think he’s gonna be one of the leading bassists of his generation,” Owens told the crowd.
The Quintet was a band in constant motion, delivering more statement than groove. At center stage stood Benny Benack III on trumpet (they call him “Baby Benny” in Japan, Owens joked), whose frantic “Guh Guh Guh” was the evening’s most rigorous workout, for the spectators as much as the players.
While solos were few, Tim Green, on alto saxophone, blew the best, and brought stabs of intensity to an uplifting set that often resembled a wide smile. Throughout the 7:30 show, the first of two, Owens was a subtle powerhouse of a showman, wiping his brow and hitting clean and crisp throughout. His final solo, a thundering blend of toms and rimshots on Blakey’s “One By One,” was worth the wait.