Born in the United States, John Ruocco is one of many artists who have found a fuller life abroad. The 56 year-old saxophonist/clarinetist has lived in The Netherlands for years and is a fixture on both the Dutch and Belgian scenes, with a significant discography and current activities including directing both the Dutch Jazz Orchestra and Den Haag Conservatory Big Band. Living below the radar in his country of origin isn't unusual, but with two 2008 releasescomposer Myriam Alter's Where is There
(Enja) and his own Am I Asking Too Much?
this may finally be the year Ruocco becomes at least a little better known to American listeners.
Am I Asking Too Much? is an intimate trio affair with British pianist John Taylor and Italian bassist Riccardo Del Fra. Taylor and Del Fra aren't strangers to each othertheir 2002 trio disc Overnight, with trumpeter Kenny Wheeler on the defunct Sketch label, was a sadly overlooked gem, and the same chemistry brought to that project is on equal view here. Ruocco, who restricts himself solely to clarinet, may be the titular leader, but this is collaboration of equals with delineated solos of decided strength. Still, it's the constant give-and-take that makes these six Ruocco compositions stand out as a combination of the familiar and the unpredictable, all in a nuanced chamber jazz setting that renders palatable even the most adventurous trialogues.
Ruocco's music often starts in a lyrical place with a gentle pulse and elegant tenor, but the trio isn't afraid to take things farther out by being on the lookout for the subtlest of suggestions. Taylor's accompaniment picks up on Ruocco's slightest dynamic shifts and linear flurries, moving the foundation increasingly left of center alongside Del Fra, for Ruocco's solo on the initially soft waltz "Little Stones."
Taylor's harmonic approach has always been sophisticated, but in recent years he's also achieved a greater stream-of-consciousness aesthetic that remains distinctly incorporative of his musical surroundings. Whirlpool (Cam Jazz, 2008) was an exercise in group interaction, but with Taylor unequivocally at the helm. Here, with Ruocco's deceptive writing positioning the musical terrain, the pianist may be even more impressive in his instant recognizability despite fitting seamlessly into a group approach that straddles the line between rich melodism and whimsical idiosyncrasy.
As refined and linked to the jazz tradition as the music isboth harmonically and with its paradoxically pervasive yet occasionally elusive sense of swingthe trio sometimes creates music like a house of cards. The pulse of "A Glimmer" is clear at the outset but soon dissolves into a free-thinking three-way exchange---no single instrument defining, but together uncannily implying, the rhythm throughout.
It's the very feeling that the whole thing could fall apart at any momentbut doesn'tthat makes Am I Asking Too Much? such a captivating listen. With palpable risk-taking permeating the entire set, Ruocco, Taylor and Del Fra demonstrate one needn't be abstruse or oblique to convey the sound of surprise.