It's not as if the musicians of the mysteriously named AntFarm Quartet just showed up in the studio one day to record their first CD. All of them live in the Philadelphia-Delaware Valley area, attuned to each other's styles, and have recorded in various configurations in the past. But obviously, their musical camaraderie has extended to the offshooting formation of a quartet that highlights their respect for the sound of the group, rather than individual expression. Perhaps this artistic modesty derives from their work backing up other, and better known, musicians like Sir Roland Hanna, Bucky Pizzarelli, Pat Martino or Oscar Brown, Jr. But the necessity of listening to the featured performer and providing instantaneous and illuminating back-up has now produced a foursome whose similar backgrounds and common musical understanding merge to form a noteworthy group of understated depth.
Certainly, all of the members of the group could break out into furious individual improvisation, if the occasion so required. A good comparison is The AntFarm Quartet's interpretation of, Jim Ridl's seemingly favorite composition, "Only Half A Cup?" which he normally attacks in solo with unrestrained intensity. But adapted to the quartet, the arrangement adds a horn part for a clearly defined statement of the blues melody, while drummer Bob Shomo pushes the group with tom-tom rumbles, cymbal crashes and bursts of mini-dramas in the continuous build-up of off-the-beat phrases. Ridl retains a strong left-hand statement of rolling patterns complementing the bluesy right-hand work although metrically they appear to be independent of the other.
However, the other 6 tracks provide a more relaxed experience as Tim Lekan and Ridl have composed tunes more suited to singing, which is what trumpeter Bob Meashey does wordlessly with them. "Lucky I Guess" arises from a simple 8-bar melody, logical and predictable. But what the quartet does with the changes is anything but predictable. Stretching the final measures of the tune with a lazy blues feel, similar to the effect of "Goodbye Porkpie Hat," the quartet emphasizes the vocal qualities of the tune, as if telling a story.
It turns out that Meashey's trumpet is the primary voice of the group, particularly on the slower numbers like "Waltz For Kenny," which opens with the trumpet accompanied solely by Lekan's bass for a tentative and possibly mournful effect until the full rhythm section comes in for an exposition of the memorable two-note minor-keyed interval opening the tune. And then, slyly, the tune glides into a major key for a sunnier attitude than implied by the first chorus. "Dancers, Degas" rises and then falls on adjacent notes, prolonged a little longer than grace notes would be, before the tune settles into an easy swing setting the stage for relaxed improvisation with a slight Latin feel.
Johnny Mandel's "Seascape," at a moderately fast tempo, is the only track not written by Lekan or Ridl, but it remains consistent with the clearly focused and inviting sounds of the group, something akin to what one would have expected from Art Farmer and Fred Hersch 15 years ago.
Cohesive and dedicated to what could be a readily identifiable sound, The AntFarm Quartet has released a CD that's an enjoyable listen performed by some outstanding musicians who not only listen to each other when they play, but who obviously enjoy performing together.