Anyone with a yen for well-played, hard-swinging, original hard-bop is going to love Alexander McCabe's "Quiz." McCabe, a young alto saxophonist who's spent time backing Ray Charles and Chico O'Farrill, is accompanied by an all-star band that includes the fantastically creative Philly native Uri Caine on piano, the rock-solid bass of Ugonna Okegwo, and either of two dynamic drummers – Rudy Royston (known for his sterling work with Ron Miles, he's Jon Irabagon's drummer of choice these days), and ex-Joshua Redman and Joanne Brackeen skinsman Greg Hutchinson.
"Quiz" features five original pieces by McCabe as well as 2 standards. McCabe's writing seems to favor the uptempo end of the spectrum. His pieces are substantial and meaty, but never stray too far from their central mission of swinging like mad. The CD-opening 'Weezie's Waltz' is a deceptively sweet-sounding track that conceals some absolutely diabolical metric modulations and time signature changes. McCabe steps right out with a razor-sharp solo – he has a lush, full-throated tone that brings Sonny Fortune and Greg Osby to mind. 'Lonnegan' is mid-tempo burner that sounds a bit like something Jackie McLean might've come up with circa 'Let Freedom Ring.' The title track has a somewhat different character. Unusual, somewhat dark harmonies abound and Royston's drum patter decisively bridges the gap between backbeat and be-bop, until McCabe gets going on what proves to be a truly amazing solo. 'St. Pat' is a quirky little Ornette-ish line that gets repeated three times – here, Caine lays out during another impressive McCabe solo, and the musical empathy between Royston and the young alto saxophonist becomes immediately apparent. Okegwo chips in a sweet little solo here, as well. Caine's playing throughout the CD is brilliant, whether he's comping behind the others or stepping out into the spotlight.
The two standards are a bit mellower and less edgy than McCabe's originals. 'How Little We Know' is an old-school jazz standard played straight-up, with much warmth and love and a relaxed sort of vibe. By contrast, the quartet's epic rendering of 'Good Morning Heartache' is a real show-stopper. McCabe's alto waxes Coltrane-esque during the lengthy rubato opening section, amidst swirls of malleted toms and cymbals, and ominous piano rumblings. Royston quickly establishes a loosely swinging, bossa-influenced sort of feel and everyone gets a lengthy solo feature. Caine's spot here is especially noteworthy – he simply runs away with the tune! The tune closes much as it began, with McCabe finding a wealth of ideas in the melody line.
"Quiz" is an excellent modern mainstream jazz CD. McCabe's playing and composing is so accomplished, poised, and assured that it's hard to believe this is his debut as a leader.