The Neighborhood Quartet...
The Neighborhood Quartet’s music is as varied as its members’ résumés—as improvisers, they’re adept at navigating jazz harmony; as writers they understand the shape of folklike melodies—but, if they had to be classified, you could say they pursue a distinctly midwestern take on the tradition of R&B and pop instrumental groups. Such groups were thicker on the ground in the sixties and seventies: Booker T. & the MG’s, Young-Holt Unlimited, the Meters, and broadly kindred bands such as the more jazz-aligned Crusaders. On its self-titled debut album, the Neighborhood Quartet doesn’t explicitly sound like any of that—they aren’t retrogressive or imitative—but they tap into the tradition’s sensibility: sticky melodies laid on top of supple funk; clever, economical arrangements; tasty and succinct solos. For the group’s guitarist and lap-steel ace, Dan Schwartz, the NHQT has two principal modes, both evocative of motion: their groovy side, likened to cruising through the streets of the quartet’s native Twin Cities; and their ethereal side, likened to floating above the nearby prairie. Indeed, the album’s bright, hooky opener, “Hey Fellas,” written by the band’s vibraphonist, Steve Roehm, would sound great coming from a car stereo on one of the long commercial streets of Minneapolis (or Detroit, for that matter). Meanwhile, Schwartz’s plaintive “End of October” could soundtrack a country drive where with each second the windshield frames a new classic of landscape art.
If you spend some time with the quartet’s music, you won’t be surprised to learn its members are in-demand players around and beyond the Twin Cities. Roehm’s vibes are essential to the imaginatively interpretative trio the New Standards, fronted by Chan Poling (the Suburbs) and John Munson (Semisonic). As a supporting musician, Schwartz has played with many singer-songwriters and acoustic acts, including Dan Navarro and Peter Mayer. Drummer Greg Schutte, in addition to being among the finest jazz drummers in the Twin Cities, has played and toured with Mickey Hart, Chastity Brown, and Ryan Bingham, a gig he shares with NHQT bassist Nick Salisbury. Schutte is also a sound designer and runs a recording studio, Boom Island Recording, where he ably produced the Neighborhood Quartet’s album. The big-eared and agile Salisbury, despite stiff internal competition, must be the group’s most scheduled player; in 2023, he played 353 gigs, and is a particular favorite with songwriters and Americana acts such as Brian Fallon, Sarah Morris, Jack Klatt, and the Dollys.
Though the group’s members are, for now, best known as players, they’re distinctive writers and arrangers as well, as The Neighborhood Quartet demonstrates. Their tonal balance is impressive: their music is sometimes breezy, but never shallow; it can be contemplative, but never dour. They play together with a sympathy born both of deep listening and true friendship. Even their wit is out for more than laughs. One title jumbles a cliché into a construction familiar to most musicians: “Dreams Beyond our Mildest Wealth.” It’s a good joke but could pass for a mission statement. Surely there’s music beyond dreams, and maybe some of it sounds like the Neighborhood Quartet.