Feb 1, 2011

Peter Schwebs: Stories From Sugar Hill

"Judging by his debut album, Schwebs is not only an able musician but a gifted composer as well."

Label: Laika Records
Personnel: Peter Schwebs, bass/George Garzone and Ben Kraef, tenor sax/Douglas Bradford, guitar/Julian Pollack, piano/Ari Hoenig and Nick Anderson, drums
Genre: Modern jazz with a European influence
Recommended for: everyone

Peter Schwebs is a young German bassist who's already played with the likes of Dave Liebman and Chris Potter, and judging by "Stories From Sugar Hill," his debut album as a bandleader, he's not only an able musician but a gifted composer as well. Having lived for three years in Sugar Hill - "way up in Harlem," as Billy Strayhorn wrote -  Schwebs penned the tunes as an affectionate and compelling tribute to the neighborhood. 

Schwebs has assembled a talented cast of bandmates, highlighted by veteran saxman George Garzone and drummer and sometime bandleader Ari Hoenig. The opening track, "On Sugar Hill," an uptempo piece driven along by Hoenig and Schwebs, evokes the frenetic pace and controlled chaos of the city in much the same way Dave Brubeck's "Tokyo Traffic" did back in the day. More subdued is "Swedish Friend"; Hoenig and Schwebs still push an ever-quickening beat, but guitarist Douglas Bradford's restrained playing gives the tune a slightly melancholy feel.

That moodiness continues on "Autumn-ish NY," which begins with Julian Pollack's piano, Ben Kraef's sax and Bradford's guitar in a slow, almost dirge-like counterpoint. As the momentum builds it's Pollack who shines as he roams the keyboard, working out the tune's meaning with equal measures of power and nuance. 

Given Schwebs' heritage it's perhaps no surprise that the overall vibe here is of a piece with the kind of contemplative European jazz often associated with the ECM label. But there are exceptions; "Cat Bites Dog" opens with with a little playful experimentation between the two sax players. But then the tune roars to life and Schwebs and company show they can swing like nobody's business. That's the sound of the Sugar Hill I know.

-Tony Rogers

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