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Devin Gray: Dirigo Rataplan

Dave Wayne By

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In today's crowded jazz market, it's an achievement to come up with a signature group sound. And yet, this is just one of the wonderful things immediately apparent on Devin Gray's Dirigo Rataplan. An amazing percussionist, Gray's stunningly detailed playing sounds like a cross between Fritz Hauser and Roy Haynes.

He flashes some serious compositional chops as well. Dirigo Rataplan is comprised of eight bright, restless originals that are complex and intimate, brainy and engaging, and occasionally a bit outré. Making all of this great music come alive is Gray's phenomenal quartet. Saxophonist Ellery Eskelin and trumpeter Dave Ballou are a formidable front line, and both are absolutely at the tops of their respective games here. Eskelin marvelously dissolves the rambunctious abstract funk of "Cancel The Cancel" into a foggy landscape of whispers and questions. Like Eskelin, Ballou has a lush sound and a seemingly endless wealth of ideas. His solo on "Down Time" is beautifully constructed, rising from the melody like a raven taking flight. Michael Formanek is another great choice—a veteran bassist who's played a similar sort of advanced, creative jazz for decades in his own bands, as well as those led by saxophonist Tim Berne and pianist Uri Caine.

"Quadraphonically" may be the disc's most radical track. Inspired by bird song, melodies and rhythms intertwine. Gray's playing here is uncannily tuneful, and Formanek doesn't go anywhere near a traditional jazz bass line, hewing closer to the tune's mercurial melodic content. Still, it grooves like mad, especially as Ballou and Eskelin solo over the explorations of the deeply connected rhythm section. It's a perfect example of the famed Weather Report dictum, "everyone solos and no one solos." Gray is fond of collective improvisations, and nearly all of the pieces feature conversational pairings of different members of the quartet.

This continually shifting sound palette makes for a highly stimulating listen. Though fractured and twisted funk rhythms of various sorts figure prominently on "Cancel the Cancel," "Down Time," and "Talking With Hands," Gray's intent never wavers from the cutting edge. While they access freer, looser rhythmic structures, and darker moods, on "Prospect Park In The Dark," "Thickets," and "Otaku," each of these lovely, brooding pieces is imbued with a relentless forward motion. The closing "Katahdin" is a Berne-like burner that ties all of these elements together in a cogent manner.

As wonderful as the music is, the packaging is not so. Coming in a DVD-sized holder, the largely red, black, and white design seems to have a color or two missing, rendering the track listing and Gray's brief notes on each composition practically illegible. So, put the CD case down, and listen to this beautifully played, impeccably recorded music and be amazed. Every track on this magical CD brims with creativity and inspiration. Dirigo Rataplan is one of this year's very best.

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.

Title: Dirigo Rataplan | Year Released: 2012 | Record Label: Skirl Records

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