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Steve Smith/Michael Zilber Quartet: "Reimagined, Volume 1 Jazz Standards" (Blue Jay Records)

Michael Zilber's Notes to the new CD:

Steve Smith, with whom I’ve played for the past six years in various settings, has particularly enjoyed blowing on what he calls my “Zilberizing” of jazz standards. He suggested that we make a CD consisting entirely of them. Traditionally, jazz musicians have reworked tunes from the great American Song Book in one of two ways. The beboppers took chord changes to standards such as I got Rhythm and wrote new melodies on them (Shaw Nuff, Oleo). Later, folks such as Bill Evans took existing tunes and subtly reworked the harmonies supporting them -what jazzers call reharms (or as my friend John R. Burr jokes, to harm again).

I don’t know whether or not I coined the term “reimagined,” but it is the best description of what I do to standards. It is the process where everything in the tune EXCEPT some form of the melody (sometimes rewritten) is fair game, from changes to meter to form to tempo. For over 20 years, I have been doing my own reimaginings of tunes at the same time I’ve been writing originals.

At the time of this recording, Steve and I had been playing together for about two years in a quartet rounded out by the beautiful piano playing of Paul Nagel and the inspired bass work of John Shifflet. These two, joined by the astonishing polyrhythmic virtuosity of Steve, made this sax player’s job very easy and joyful. The results are in your hands.

In most cases, the reimaginings went far past simple reharms. In “All Blues,” we put the Miles Davis classic into a Teen Town-style 4/4 groove with altered changes and melody, “Manteca” was reworked into a pedal point 7/4 with 11/8 tag, “Freedom Jazz Dance” became a 3-4 Bobby Timmons’ inspired bugaloo, and so on. Some titles are tongue in cheek, such as “Re:Pressions,” taking Trane’s simple two chord tune and keeping the form, but cycling it through all 12 keys in row fashion, or turning Trane’s breakneck “Countdown” into a slow ballad in three with Pastorius-influenced harmonies. Probably the most radical departure is “Mood Indigo” — taking Ellington’s seminal ballad and turning it into a mid-60s Miles Davis-style sprint with loosely abstracted melody (it’s in there, trust me). “Solar” takes the original melody, reworks it through different key centers and puts it in a slow Brazilian groove, ”Caravan” adheres fairly closely to the original, other than some harmonic and measure modifications and the Trane-inspired bridge. “How Long Has This Been Going On” and “Somewhere” are more in the Bill Evans tradition, with little modification of melody or form, just different harmonic colors. As for “Fantasia on Giant Steps,” it’s a little bit of a musical Escherism: let’s take the tune that has traditionally been viewed as the proving ground for changes playing the past 40 years and rework it through six keys with a new melody.

I hope you enjoy listening to these as much as we enjoyed playing them!

Michael Zilber
Albany, California
Fall 2001

Dave Liebman's Notes to the new CD:

In his own notes, Mike Zilber very clearly describes what jazz musicians have traditionally done when playing the standard repertoire. Though some purists may differ on the subject (along with composer Alec Wilder who wrote a famous editorial lambasting jazz players for changing a composer's intentions) and keeping in mind that after all it is a matter of taste, I have always felt personally that we have no choice but to put our own stamp on these chestnut tunes. After all, who can do it better than Miles, Monk, Trane or Newk to name only a few? I remember hearing Aretha Franklin singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” years ago and hardly recognizing the song, but really digging how individual it was-and for me improved!!

What Mike refers to as “reimagining” could on a more technical level be called “reconstruction” or “deconstruction.” I must admit that I have never heard such abstractions of standards before, though it seems to be in the air these days. To use even just one small element of a tune and make that the leimotif for a new format is the modern generation's way of handling standards. Whereas we used to reharmonize, change meter and possibly change melody, Mike completely rewrites the tune and puts in front of the musicians an extremely challenging improvisational format to blow over. (By the way for the non musicians reading this, the techniques Mike uses are extremely sophisticated on a purely technical level.) With musicians like Steve, Paul, and John, the outcome is an unqualified success.

Mike really has an original voice. Descended from a strong Wayne Shorter influence with others intertwined, his thought processes are very compositional when he plays. He is not afraid to take chances saxophonically speaking (“Manteca”) and plays with a raw passion that is always apparent (“Mood Indigo”). Steve brings to the music influences from other genres and of course an impeccable technique while Paul and John take care of the business at hand-contributing when called upon and holding the line where they have to, which is especially important on such challenging material. “Giant Steps” is just amazing and for my taste, I think the new “Solar” melody is superior to the original, dare I say!

When I first heard this CD I was knocked out by the concept immediately. I think that this recording marks a step forward in the time worn tradition of each musical generation's placing their own slant on the jazz legacy. The cliche of putting old wine into new bottles is very accurate for this recording. A true adventure awaits the serious jazz listener-this music is not for the faint of heart.

Dave Liebman

Michael Brecker's Notes to the new CD:

An inspired and burning CD by Mike Zilber, Steve Smith and friends. Mike has chosen some familiar jazz standards and through the process scientifically known as "Zilberization" has transformed them into new and refreshing compositions. Wonderful music.

Michael Brecker, eight-time Grammy winner as Jazz Instrumentalist of the Year

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All Music Guide Rating: Four Stars

"Drummer Steve Smith and his quartet (comprised of Michael Zilber on tenor and soprano, pianist Paul Nagel and bassist John Shifflett) live up to their CDs title by performing sometimes radically-reimagined renditions of 11 jazz standards. “All Blues" is a bit spacey (with Zilber on soprano), “Mood Indigo" is taken uptempo with Zilber's tenor sounding a bit like Wayne Shorter in the mid-1960s, “Freedom Jazz Dance" is a postbop romp, “Manteca" is stripped of its Latin rhythms and played in 7/4 time, etc. Although the melodies to the famous songs are still present, the tunes have been reharmonized, tempos and moods have been changed, and the results are very fresh looks at a variety of standards. This set is full of surprises and well worth exploring and savoring."

- Scott Yanow, All Music Guide

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