Band’s Rapport Runs Deep, and the Undertow Swings

by NATE CHINEN
February 23, 2011

The postbop ensemble known as Quest — David Liebman on saxophones and flute, Richie Beirach on piano, Ron McClure on bass and Billy Hart on drums — was originally active throughout the 1980s, a decade of much tension around the issue of aesthetic purity in jazz. At the heart of the debate was a pointed belief that jazz had been stretched to its limits, or somehow diluted, by the digressive forces of free jazz and fusion.

Against that backdrop Quest straddled the fence. It was an outfit steeped in certain aspects of free jazz and fusion, but also an acoustic quartet given to playing standards, often with a driving sense of swing. That in-betweenness, though hardly unique, was unusual enough at the time; today it’s what passes for mainstream convention. So the band’s reunion in 2005 after a hiatus of almost 15 years carried an air of justified elation. Its first album back, on the Hat Hut label, was called “Redemption.”

On Tuesday night at Birdland, in the first set of a five-night run, Quest put forth a characteristic effort, slashing through original music and some tunes from the repertory of the 1960s-vintage Miles Davis Quintet. The players took a while to establish an equilibrium — Mr. Hart and Mr. McClure sounded rhythmically at odds for the first few tunes, one pushing while the other pulled — but their rapport ran deep and strong.

Quest’s de facto leader is Mr. Liebman, whose career has involved both fusion (most visibly with Davis) and the avant-garde (after the example of John Coltrane). He’s a member of the latest — and according to a new federal budget plan probably the last — class of National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters, but he was casual, almost offhanded, with his authority here. Playing soprano saxophone on “Nardis,” he hit one high trill and held it there, ululating against the band’s swinging undertow. Moments later he played an abstraction of the melody, his embellishments swirling in fast little eddies, elusive by design.

Mr. Beirach, who holds nearly as much pull in the group as Mr. Liebman, was the other sterling improviser, though he had some setbacks, including a broken piano string. A fluid rhapsodist to the core, he sometimes seemed to be reaching for a sturdier, less convulsive rhythmic underlay than the one his band mates were giving him. (Mr. Hart was an especially imposing presence, bashing his cymbals and toms with canny abandon.)

Turbulence wasn’t an issue on “Leaving,” Mr. Beirach’s best-known composition and the most transfixing of the set. During an extended take on the song there was a deluxe bass solo, a voluptuous piano solo and a beautifully expressive wood-flute interlude, before Mr. Liebman switched back to soprano for one final reading of the theme.

Quest performs through Saturday at Birdland, 315 West 44th Street, Clinton, (212) 581-3080, birdlandjazz.com.