Pianist Steve Lantner, an active player in Boston's improvised music community, has an ear for the unexpected. His last trio outing, Saying So, established him as a literate, empathetic voice devoted to expanding language and lyricism through understatement. On this freely improvised followup, he breaks down a number of barriers, exploring territory marked by more overt dissonance and wider emotional dynamicsoften doing so by leaping and bounding, rather than assembling careful, flowing statements.
His partners on Blue Yonder, a live recording at Cambridge's Zeitgeist Gallery, are two other New Englanders: veteran guitarist-cum-bassist Joe Morris, an important collaborator who returns from Saying So, and charismatic young drummer Luther Gray, who replaces Laurence Cook. The entire record, like Skycap's companion issue by Natural History, is loaded with twists and turns, both within and among its five ten-minute pieces.
The biggest surprise pops up right away after a quick solo bass introduction to the opening title tune, which swings hard from there on out. Morris has always been a closet swinger at heart, though it's nearly impossible to discern that in any obvious fashion from his guitar playing; here his running bass line meshes with Gray's own cymbal-based triplets to underpin Lantner's cascading runs and bunches. The joyous bounce and thrust of these angular, often Monkish motions sets an upbeat tone and draws the listener in. A fiery jam/climax kicks in about ten minutes into the tune, leading it out with counterpoint, clusters, and multiple intertwined lines.
Having gotten off to such a roaring start, the trio steps right away into a more hesitant mode on "If It Really Don't," which is full of odd timing and short, quirky phrases, evolving from a stop-start drum solo into a substantial three-way conversation. Listen here for dynamic action and reaction done very much in the moment. More swing surfaces on the next couple of tunes, of which the much faster "Hold On To" takes pacing, spontaneity, and abruptness to extremes. Lantner seems much more confident and assertive during times like this, and his fertile imagination seems to explode with ideas that he can barely fit into the space provided.
But this reckless abandon once again falls away into moody uncertainty on the closing piece, which is darker and more tentative, sometimes featuring more drum and bass than piano action. The players frame dissonance with an underlying tension, touching a dark netherworld, leaving lines hanging or drifting, never really getting to resolution.
All three members of this trio are open-minded, outspoken, inventive musicians who listen as much as they play, but Lantner's voice comes across the strongest and most adaptable over time. Given the quirks and range that characterize Blue Yonder, it's a more demanding listen than Lantner's last effort, but it's at least as good overall, which is no small accomplishment.
Visit Steve Lantner and Joe Morris on the web.
Personnel: Steve Lantner: piano; Joe Morris: bass; Luther Gray: drums.