Ronnie Cuber, “Live at Jazzfest Berlin” (SteepleChase)
Baritone saxophonist Ronnie Cuber’s third release for SteepleChase predates his association with the label, and might be thought of as a happy accident. At the titular fest, in 2008, Cuber’s quartet—with pianist Kenny Drew Jr., electric bassist Ruben Rodriguez and drummer Ben Perowsky—played a two-set show that the four remembered as a highlight of their European tour. Unbeknownst to them, the concert was recorded for a radio broadcast, and Cuber subsequently opted to give the music an official release. He had good instincts: The seven tunes culled from the evening have Cuber and co. in fine form, with the saxophonist, underappreciated pianist Drew and the in-sync rhythm section excelling on blues, swing and Latin-oriented tunes, including four originals.
The band romps from the get-go with Horace Silver’s “Tokyo Blues,” its call-and-response head opening up into an extended solo for Cuber, who incorporates artful repetition, syncopation, overblowing effects and a Gershwin reference before turning it over to Drew. He proceeds to build a dizzying, masterful solo, and Rodriguez and Perowsky also shine on the 12 1/2-minute tune. The samba rhythms of Clare Fischer’s bright, catchy “Coco B” fuel sterling improvisations by Drew and Cuber. So, too, do the fertile Afro-Caribbean grooves of Cuber’s “Passion Fruit,” the title track from the saxophonist’s 1985 album, which opens up for a high-energy montuno section, and his “Arroz con Pollo,” bolstered by Rodriguez’s fleet-fingered workout.
The quartet also takes on Herbie Hancock’s melancholy, slowly shifting “Tell Me a Bedtime Story” and two originals from Drew: the funk-edged “Things Never Were What They Used to Be,” a nod to the Mercer Ellington tune, and “Perpetuating the Myth,” a strolling, twisting, bluesy piece with a bari-and-piano unison melody that nods to Monk. Fat, gritty tone? Check. Agile, clever improvisations? Check. Cuber still has it.