NY Times Review

A Sly Brand of Relaxation That Doesn’t Involve Leisure

G. Paul Burnett/The New York Times
Published: May 22, 2008

Al Foster pulls off a neat trick as a jazz drummer, and it’s hard to say exactly how he does it. Like a number of his peers, Mr. Foster, 64, places his beat on the forward lip of any tempo, creating an irresistible pull. And yet his playing exudes a laidback feel, with plenty of room built in. To watch him in action, perched low to the ground behind several sharply angled cymbals, is to witness something like an expert golf swing. Mr. Foster is advancing his sly brand of assertive relaxation this week at the Village Vanguard, along with some transparently assiduous younger players: the saxophonist Eli Degibri, the pianist Gary Versace and the bassist Doug Weiss. On one level their engagement marks the release of “Love, Peace and Jazz!" (Jazz Eyes), the first album under Mr. Foster’s name in more than a decade, recorded last year at the Vanguard. On another level it’s just a gig, one more week in the life of a working band.

That’s not a bad thing, judging by the first set on Tuesday. Along with Mr. Foster’s supple pulse, it showcased the bedrock time of Mr. Weiss, a crucial counterweight, and the frolicsome inventions of the other players. Mr. Degibri in particular, playing tenor and soprano in roughly equal measure, assumed the natural role of frontman, investing most of his solos with a searching composure.

While “Love, Peace and Jazz!" features several sharp tunes by Mr. Foster, the set was composed of jazz standards, beginning with “So What" by HYPERLINK "Miles Davis, the most prominent of Mr. Foster’s former employers. The quartet managed to make that theme feel less overplayed than it is, through sheer effervescence. Later the same thing happened with “Take the A Train," Billy Strayhorn’s well-worn calling card for Duke Ellington, and “Cantaloupe Island," a familiarly vampheavy Herbie Hancock tune.

More rewarding, though, were "Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma," with a strong solo by Mr. Weiss; “Peace," a Horace Silver ballad that inspired an eloquent essay by Mr. Versace; and Wayne Shorter’s “E.S.P.," which nudged Mr. Degibri onto some harmonically uncertain terrain, with intense results. Through it all, the group maintained a flexible cohesion, and its leader kept things briskly moving, one way or another.

Al Foster Quartet plays through Sunday at the Village
Vanguard, 178 Seventh Avenue South, at 11th Street, West
Village, (212) 255-4037, villagevanguard.com.