Jazz is never stagnant. The best live players are able to hop between keys and rhythms with an acute sense of place, asking where the song is headed and where they plan to interject. The genre is generous and has infinite facets, allowing veterans and newcomers to often occupy the same spotlight. Last winter, national stalwarts came together to form New York United—both a four-piece band and a lengthy five-track record where the city was more than a backdrop.
Though I’m tempted to call them a supergroup, the collaboration between Daniel Carter, Tobias Wilner, Djibril Toure, and Federico Ughi is really just another day in the underground. It was renowned drummer Ughi’s idea to pull together the most talented musicians he knew in order to create a body of work that could transcend their individual fame. Carter has been revered for decades and has known Ughi since 2001, making him an obvious choice to contribute saxophone, flute, and trumpet. Wilner (production, synth, beats) and Toure (bass) are more widely known as part of the bands Blue Foundation and Wu-Tang Clan respectively, each of which has also been graced by Ughi’s rhythms.
All four players have a distinct personality at the helm of their preferred instrument, yet the ease of each movement on New York United shows just how well they listen to one another. The focal point of each song glides naturally between instruments, where on “125th Street,” the brass is our protagonist before a xylophone swoops in. On “Norstrand Avenue,” every element seems to have its own story, and upon coalescing, they create a new world. These are two of the most grandiose pieces on the record. No instrument or story is left unfinished.
That is also to say, the other tracks make just as profound an impact with less required endurance. The under-three-minute ditty “Flatbush Avenue” makes its point like a lightning strike—it flows with the mysterious coos that came on the album prior, and renews them with the darker side of Carter’s trumpet. And “Canal Street” is a proven stand-out, with its measured percussion and production interplays.
Natives may recognize the path the band takes on the subway underneath New York. Starting in lower Manhattan, they travel up to Harlem, then back south along Norstrand Avenue in Brooklyn until they hit Flatbush. It’s a broad itinerary, especially for just about an hour’s worth of music, but in jazz there is no destination; there’s just the journey.