The New Standard Alliance, on their self-titled debut, have attempted to do something very difficult - to transform pop and rock hits into straight-ahead jazz vehicles. This is not unprecedented. Herbie Hancock attempted to do the same thing on his 1995 release The New Standard (anyone want to hazard a guess that this is where NSA got their name?). Hancock tackled a variety of tunes from such diverse artists as Peter Gabriel, Stevie Wonder, Prince, The Beatles and Nirvana. I still remember how excited I was when I first unwrapped that CD and popped it into my player. By the time it finished playing an hour later, I was quite disappointed. Hancock’s approach was creative and complex, but it just didn’t really work for me. The same with Joshua Redman’s 1998 release Timeless Tales, where he also tried to ‘jazzify’ tunes by Stevie Wonder, The Beatles and Prince, among others. Again, it seemed to be missing something.
Finally, along comes NSA and I think they have hit the mark that Hancock and Redman fell short of. NSA consists of vibes player James Shipp (also the leader, founder, producer and arranger), trumpet player Ray Vega (of Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria and Ray Barretto fame, among others), tenor sax player Matt Garrison (not to be confused with John Coltrane bassist Jimmy Garrison’s bass playing son) , guitarist Nolan Ericsson, bassist Chris Haney and drummer Kyle Struve.
There are some similarities in material between the NSA, Hancock and Redman albums. They’ve each included a Beatles tune ("Eleanor Rigby" on the NSA and Redman collections, "Norwegian Wood" on Hancock’s) and NSA and Hancock each feature a Nirvana tune ("Drain You" and "All Apologies", respectively), but that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Where Hancock and Redman seem to over-think, over-cook and over-play, NSA meditates, simmers and lays back. The thing that makes this type of project so daunting is that it’s very difficult to take a pop tune and transform it into a respectable jazz tune that doesn’t sound cheesy, lounge-like or forced. Even more daunting is to produce an end result that might appeal to both jazz fans and pop/rock fans, alike. I think NSA has succeeded on both counts. The proof of that success is particularly apparent on their cover of Michael Jackson’s "Billie Jean", a tune whose bass line alone is so recognizable that anyone over the age of 12 could probably ‘name that tune’ in less than 9 notes. To be able to take a tune like this, a pop anthem, and make people forget momentarily that it’s a Michael Jackson tune, is a real gift. The fact that they do it without making any significant changes to the melody is what really makes this album succeed where Hancock and Redman failed.
They do the same with tunes by Bob Dylan (Blowin’ In The Wind), Stone Temple Pilots (Vasoline), Radiohead (No Surprises and Black Star), Pearl Jam (Even Flow) and Soundgarden (Black Hole Sun). These guys are all excellent players, and everyone gets their solo moments in the spotlight here, but the two that shine especially bright are Vega and Garrison. Their improvisational prowess seems to know no bounds as line after beautiful line swirls out of their horns.
Not that this album is perfect. There are some moments that I think they could have - and should have - swung just a bit harder, and there are other moments that I feel Struve used muscle where finesse would have been a bit more effective, but overall this is an excellent album. I think that much of the credit for that has to go to Shipp, whose arrangements are lush yet simple, allowing the listener to recall the first time they heard these tunes while at the same time marveling at how well they function as straight-ahead jazz tracks.