No one can accuse Ted Kooshian of turning to the same old well of standards for inspiration: Underdog, and other Stories… contains no songs written by Rodgers & Hart, Cole Porter, or Irving Berlin. But its track list will be instantly familiar to many, particularly those who came of age circa the ‘60s and ‘70s: As on the pianist’s last release, 2008’s self-titled Ted Kooshian’s Standard Orbit Quartet, Kooshian puts his crew through the paces on a handful of cartoon, film and TV themes from those heady days, tossing in a few offbeat pop and jazz standards for kicks.
Kooshian, who is also a regular member of the Ed Palermo Big Band, prefers to use these compositions – a diverse batch ranging from Quincy Jones’ “Sanford and Son” to Steely Dan’s “Aja” to Dave Grusin’s “Baretta” – as templates, often taking great melodic liberties. Sammy Lerner’s “Popeye the Sailor” at first barely resembles the tune embedded in millions of young minds; its “toot toot” strains surface prominently about a minute in, get lost amid whorls of piano and alto interplay, then pop up again toward the end. The title track is transformed into a slice of Latin funk and “Wild Wild West” into a saloon blues.
The quartet – Kooshian, tenor saxophonist Jeff Lederer, bassist Tom Hubbard and either Warren Odze or Scott Neumann on drums – finds an essence within each of these numbers and rebuilds them from the ground up. Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach’s “God Give Me Strength” retains the original’s spirituality but finds its heart in cascading crescendos, while Ellington’s “Purple Gazelle” (from his 1962 Coltrane session, and a.k.a. “Angelica”) is harder and tougher than the Duke’s. The highlight, though, is likely the Standard Orbit Quartet’s spaced-out take on “Powerhouse,” penned by cartoon-music god Raymond Scott. In its four-plus minutes lie all the mystery, wackiness and otherworldliness of a classic animated film.
by Jeff Tamarkin – Jazz Times (2009)