Eightfold Path by the reunited Sunwatcher Quartet was recorded completely outside and inspired by Buddhist teachings which one will quickly glean by seeing the titles of eight compositions beginning with “Right” and the proverbial nature of the subheads beneath the titles. Interestingly, “eight” figures prominently for the leader – tenor saxophonist, educator, composer, and arranger Jeff Lederer, who was born on the eighth day of the eight month, as the eighth member of his family during the eighth hour of the day. Moreover, Lederer spent much time during the pandemic reading the writings of Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, whose eight foundational ideas of conduct form those same titles alluded to previously.
Yet, the more important aspect of this to jazz fans is the reunion of Lederer’s Sunwatcher Quartet, which had a widely hailed debut in 2011. Joining the leader are organist and pianist Jamie Saft, legendary bassist Steve Swallow who was not part of the initial quartet (Buster Williams was), and drummer Matt Wilson, forming practically a super group by progressive jazz standards. The sessions began when Hudson Valley native Saft began recording projects in his yard, not his home studio. After inviting Lederer to one of these sessions, the saxophonist thought it was the right time to reconvene the Sunwatcher Quartet, originally conceived to honor Lederer’s main inspirer, Albert Ayler.
The first sounds one hears is Lederer striking gongs on “Right Concentration” before Saft’s potent, repetitive organ chords and the rhythm tandem set up the leader’s explosive tenor entrance. Saft’s organ swells and Lederer’s edgy playing have the quartet settling into a groove somewhere between jazz fusion (even with acoustic instruments) and accessible avant-garde with spiritual undercurrents. “Right Speech” is a rambling, energetic piece with Lederer leading to the comps of Saft and a complex rhythm pattern from Swallow and Wilson. Saft takes flight on his explorative and soulful solo matching the leader’s intensity.
Welcome balladry, led by Lederer’s warm tones and Saft’s shift to piano, is on display in “Right Effort” – “If we have joy, ease and interest our effort will come more naturally.” Lederer’s descending sequence and Saft’s piano flourish make for a gorgeous ending. “Right Action” takes on more of a soul-jazz groove with Saft back on the organ. Lederer has some feisty exchanges with Wilson and from there we hear Ayler-like squeaks and a heated organ statement that plays off the theme before a four-way conversation ensues around the memorably melody to bring it home. “Right Resolve” begins as an emphatic stomper with Lederer and Saft in sax-organ union, a figure that marks the entire piece through solos of each member.
“Right View” begins more contemplative with Lederer, in his most spiritual flight, leading over a more subdued Saft organ before making way for Saft’s and Swallow’s expressive solos to a steady Wilson beat and building intensity before easing out. “Right Livelihood” picks up the tempo with a melodic pattern and bold, fanciful Lederer and Saft excursions accented by Wilson’s astute use of snare and cymbals while “Right Mindfulness” has the return of gongs and a calm bed of sparse piano notes over which Lederer blows tenderly while Wilson gets creative with percussive sounds.
The fun and connectivity of playing together is palpable as the quartet delivers a range of emotions with stellar performances throughout. These are some of the most creative players on their instruments and while most attention will focus on Lederer and Saft, a focus on the ‘sum of the parts” is even more invigorating.