Belgian drummer Raf Vertessen's quartet unites a mouth-watering array of talent, and he keeps them busy on his leadership debut LOI. Since arriving in Brooklyn, in 2016, Vertessen has dug in deep, enlisting saxophonist Anna Webber, trumpeter Adam O'Farrill and bassist Nick Dunston, all acclaimed leaders in their own right, to realize his charts in a way which allows them full expression while at the same time respecting compositional boundaries drawn largely from the free jazz vernacular.
Opening with the title cut, Vertessen offers the first intimation of the jostling camaraderie between the horns which illuminates the album. It begins as an aural stretching exercise, sustaining long sounds which repeat and fray until unfolding into measured colloquy. From there a catchy riff emerges, around which tenor saxophone and trumpet cavort and color. The interaction between Webber and O'Farrill comes in a variety of guisesconversational, supportive and in simultaneous flightbut continually morphs between the different modes, even during the course of a single piece.
Smart programming engenders a suite-like vibe, as the early tracksoften working with skeletal thematic elements which surface gradually and unexpectedlyhold something back, barely reaching the boil. As a result, the longer pieces, with their harder edges and greater individual opportunities, later in the program pack an even bigger punch. Several numbers run together into extended blocks successfully melding together diverse feelings into an overall rich and satisfying tapestry, cloaked in ambiguity and surprise.
Cameos pepper this ensemble music. Vertessen nudges, hints and, occasionally, attacks but, in keeping with the collective ethos, only takes the briefest of solos on the final "#2," which transmutes into a spacious duet with Dunston's elongated tone elaborations. Elsewhere the bassist toggles between pizzicato punditry and insistent patterns which reinforce the structural foundations. Morse-coded urgency erupts on "Layers" as Vertessen taps into Webber's flair, so well showcased on her own Rectangles (OOYH, 2020), for using limited material to generate seemingly endless possibilities. O'Farrill serves as a potent foil to the saxophonist, sometimes more melodic, but often venturing equally far out.
Whether it is the clattery percussion framed by abstract murmurs, scrapes, and flurries on "#4," the lurching staccato unisons of "Fake 3:7," or the woozy late-night atmosphere invoked as trumpet and tenor sax circle around each other on "#14," Vertessen's ghostly frameworks hit the sweet spot while retaining freshness and looseness. It makes for a carefully plotted excursion which lands with the laid-back glow of a saunter in the park.
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