(Kenya Sands Music, CD)
Like a winding country lane, jazz music is meant to be traveled, and Vermont’s bucolic back roads seem a fitting place to start. With Carpenter Road, the Dan Skea Quartet visit some surprisingly cool tunes upon our rural neck of New England. Known for backing Vegas sensations such as Doc Severinsen, pianist Skea retired to Waterbury in 2002 and now holds court with the iconic Pine Street Jazz Ensemble. He also cuts albums at Chuck Eller’s esteemed Carpenter Farm studio — where, it seems, the salubrious air has put a skip in his step.
Skea opens “And the Rain Keeps Falling” with infallible melody, then backs out to let Chris Peterman’s soprano sax run free. Anchored by Geza Carr’s dexterous cymbal work, the track rolls like a coming storm. On the seductive “Five Chinese Elephants,” Peterman — a Berklee grad and fellow Pine Street Jazzer — swaps dulcet soprano for a rich tenor sax. He’s one hell of a reedman, teasing the piece through dreamy turns with unerringly smooth and narcotic legato.
The foursome hits its stride on the title track, dropping solos so refined you can almost hear the applause after each player’s run. There’s no disputing it: These cats can swing. From the allegro pop of “Blue Plus” with its “Saturday Night Live”-style sax attack, to the faux-Brubeck intro on “Home From the Hill,” the quartet never idles. Fans will enjoy Skea’s sassy cover of “Blue Bossa” and the quiet Duke Ellington favorite, “In a Sentimental Mood,” with its mellifluous sax and softly brushed snare. Instantly recognizable is the vintage track “Equinox” — a balmy Coltrane classic in a bluesy minor key.
Bassist John Rivers joins the fray by infusing “India” — one of the album’s hottest numbers — with a compelling rhythm that actually transcends the louder instruments. His contrabass echoes so clearly that one can hear Rivers’ plucky pizzicato right through the mix. Underlining each track is the sure-handed Carr, whose deft drumming brings ballast to the album. His snare pops and subtle rolls show terrific inventiveness, particularly when playing in broken time.
Suffused with spontaneity and undeniable hooks, Carpenter Road frees itself from the yolk of pedestrian dinner jazz. These are sophisticated, satisfying arrangements with flat-out-addictive phrasing — proof that blue notes thrive in the Green Mountains.