Devin Gray: Dirigo Rataplan (2012)
Despite his youth, drummer Devin Gray has built an impressive resume and a well- deserved reputation as both an improviser and instrumentalist. His first CD as a leader, Dirigo Rataplan shows that he is not a slouch in the composition or bandleader department either.
The record's title, loosely translated from Latin and French, means leading from the beat, and Gray's unique approach to the drum-set allows him to do just thatnot an easy feat given the august company he keeps. His quartet consists of idiosyncratic tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, versatile bassist Michael Formanek and trumpeter Dave Ballou, a stalwart of New York's creative music scene.
Gray's percussive approach is somewhat reminiscent of Marilyn Mazur, particularly on the opening track, "Quadraphonically." His angular rhythms and complex tonal constructs are in the forefront of this track while his band mates play short bursts of notes in support, before a theatrical saxophone and trumpet dialogue evolves into a melancholic ensemble play.
Elsewhere, his inpatient and relentless drumming hints at Elvin Jones' polyphonism, such as on "Talking with Hands" which features Eskelin and Ballou embellishing the melody in unison in an homage of sorts to Albert Ayler's New Orleans Brass Band influenced Avant-Garde stylings. Gray, not only seamlessly keeps up with his side musicians but his compositions create the right environment to showcase their individual skill sets
Eskelin's thick and lyrical tone is well suited for the funky and free "Down Time" where his edgy, intricate and stimulating flight of fancy is not unlike the inside-outside playing of the distinctive Chicago Jazz man Von Freeman. On "Katahdin," his engrossing solo ebbs and flows in unusual yet stimulating patterns.
In addition to playing the perfect foil to Eskelin, Ballou's chirps and twitters build into a melodic yet jagged extemporization on the atmospheric "Thicket." Their unified sound over Formanek's virtuoso and acerbic arco bass gives the impression of a bagpipe blowing in the night. The nocturnesque ambience is also present on the Zen-like "Prospect Park in the Dark" with its free flowing, stream of consciousness, four-way musical conversation.
Momentum slacks just a tad on a couple of the tunes. On "Cancel the Cancel," for example, there is a repetition of musical ideas and on "Otaku" the group improvisation gets a bit chaotic.
Despite a very few and minor rough spots, Dirigo Rataplan is an eloquent debut from an immensely talented musician. Hopefully this is just the introduction to an impressive oeuvre to come.
Track Listing: Quadraphonically; Cancel the Cancel; Down Time; Prospect Park in the Dark (For Charles Ives); Talking with Hands; Otaku; Thickets (For Gerald Cleaver); Katahdin.
Personnel: Ellery Eskelin: tenor sax; Dave Ballou: trumpet; Michael Formanek: bass; Devin Gray: drums.