Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Standard Orbit

Ted Kooshian’s Standard Orbit Quartet
Summit Records

There is a well established tradition of jazz artists interpreting pop tunes and movie themes. (How many versions of The Sandpiper’s “Shadow of Your Smile” did jazz artists cut in the 60’s?) In that spirit, Ted Kooshian’s quartet tackles such unlikely source material as Batman, Spiderman, Buffy, The Simpsons, Hanna-Barbera’s Top Cat, and Led Zeppelin on his new CD. With such inspirations, it is tempting to label Kooshian’s Standard Orbit as jazz for forty-year olds still living with their parents—call it Mr. Kooshian’s neighborhood. However, Kooshian and quartet largely pull it off, creating some entertaining and completely legit jazz in the process.

Not being familiar with Top Cat, I can’t judge how far the opening track ranges from the original. However, it is an appropriately vigorous up-tempo opener, giving listeners a taste of the bop chops of Kooshian and reedman Jeff Lederer on tenor. This is followed by the greasy “Black Dog,” one of the most successful jazz Zeppelin renditions yet, that evokes the band’s under-recognized blues roots.

Perhaps the most perilous covers are the two superhero themes. However, they are both highlights of Orbit. Lederer switches to clarinet for both, giving “Spiderman” a traditional vibe and a darker hue to the moody “Batman.” Wisely, Kooshian opts for the brooding Danny Elfman theme for the animated series, rather than Neal Hefti’s campy 1960’s theme.

“Buffy” is probably the most difficult to recognize, thoroughly reconceived as an edgy hard bop burner. Propelled nicely by Warren Doze on drums, it features some muscular tenor work from Lederer and a somewhat skitterish solo from Kooshian, channeling the nervous energy of the series.

Of all Kooshian’s pop culture covers, the only one which really does not work is the disk’s shortest: “The Simpsons.” Perhaps the Groening series is just too ubiquitous in reruns, making it hard to hear another version with fresh ears. Regardless, the Standard Orbit take is the only cut that sounds gimmicky—a little too close to the mock jazz passage of the series’ opening credits maybe.

Conversely, Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up,” is particularly strong thanks to a respectful and faithful straight-ahead arrangement, dominated by Lederer’s soprano. Lithe and heartfelt, it is a perfect jazz-for-people-who-don’t-like-jazz track.

Orbit is an energetic and entertaining session that proves Kooshian and company can do their jazz thing with some crazy tunes. It is a healthy exercise in remaking tunes their own, which very definitely follows in the jazz tradition.