There is an American standards songbook. It runs the gamut from Tin Pan Alley to music theater to instrumental jazz compositions with lyrics added long after the fact. It is a repertoire of appropriation, culled from many sources, but comprising the entirety of no single one. It is a classicized repertoire, consisting almost entirely of love songs. This is distinct from “classical music,” a term-of-art to describe works performance practices that come from the European traditions of sacred and art music. But the jazz standards repertoire is by now similarly formalized. It is far enough removed from the dominant popular idiom that performers generally require years of formal training in institutions dedicated to the preservation of the art and its techniques, often right alongside those initiating and immersing themselves in the classical pedagogical methods.
While jazz standards offer more room for improvisation, reinterpretation, and arrangement (i.e. “I’ll Remember April” as a bossa nova), there are definite rules and standards that determine the choices available to the practitioner. Improvisation is never really improvisation, but rather a recombination of riffs and licks, of gestures and motion all weighted with fairly specific associations, references, and relationships within the idiom. One action calls for an appropriate response from another, and the musicians as individuals and as an ensemble build from this code of numbered blocks large structures that are, while flexible, intricately patterned.
French-born singer Cyrille Aimée did her formal training at SUNY Purchase, a connection to which was a shared attribute of the quintet that played Smalls on September 24th. She most certainly is a rigorous exponent of the classic jazz vocals tradition, making no pretenses to fusion or any kind of grand stylistic innovation yet she is also a serious representative of the genre, ingenious and exciting within its confines. No one could accuse her of repetition. Some of Aimée’s vocal tone and mannerisms recall a Billie Holiday with less of the detritus of pain. Yet despite the sunnier disposition, Aimee was not presentational or aiming to please. There was great sincerity and introversion in her approach. She portrayed and lived the lyrics she sang in the moment. Her scat solos were instrumental and daring in nature, and perfectly aligned to the expressive purpose of the arrangements, every bit an equal musical participant with her partners.
Rich Perry wasn’t quite as adventurous in his solos, but he masterfully blended his sax with Aimee, hybridizing timbres and creating some incredible cadential effects that thoroughly subverted voice-leading expectations. Otherwise, he was always in the right place at the right time.
Pete Malinverni was just brilliant. He improvised countermelodies that could easily have worked as stand-alone compositions, somehow without drawing attention from the rest of the ensemble. He delayed resolutions with the large-scale harmonic awareness of a Netherlandish polyphonist, provided counterintuitive commentary, and always defied expectation, yet always with great justification.
Or Bareket was a solid contributor, filling in the bass gaps between Malinveri’s sometimes rhythmically jagged and fragmented support. He was energetic and assertive.
Rajiv Jayaweera drove the group from the drums, never letting the beat sag, providing exclamation points and emphasis where appropriate, while never getting lost in complexity and abstractification.
Overall, the ensemble was unbelievably tight, with members having known one another for some time. Solos were traded back and forth, duets formed spontaneously, and there was a great sense of comfort, common purpose, and mutual challenge. As is the case among the best chamber musicians, each member added their own personality to the group.