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Fly: Sky & Country

John Kelman By

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Despite a debut that failed to generate much noise, Fly's sophomore effort—its first for ECM- -ought to. Dispelling the ECM myth of neglecting American music, this trio—featuring perennially undervalued saxophonist Mark Turner alongside Brad Mehldau Trio mates, bassist FLY and drummer Jeff Ballard— finds its own nexus of head and heart. Dave Holland's Triplicate (ECM, 1988) might be a precedent, but that was a harder swinging effort more closely linked to the American tradition. Fly swings in its own way, but is equally disposed towards integrating elements farther afield, all with a spare, less-is-more approach that, despite the trio's unequivocal virtuosity, avoids wasted demonstration merely for the sake of it.

Fly is also a democratic collective, with everyone contributing to the set of nine originals, although Turner dominates with four tunes that take up nearly half of the album's 67-minute running time. The trio revisits the title track from the saxophonist's Dharma Days (Warner Bros., 2001), one of the disc's most fiery and traditionally swinging tracks, but more concisely—a characteristic that defines the entire disc. While some tracks extend well into the 10-minute range, there's a noticeable lack of grandstanding; instead, it's about giving each piece the time to breathe and expand. Turner's episodic "Ananda Nanda" opens with a tenor solo that reaches so seamlessly and cleanly into the upper register that it's sometimes hard to believe it's not a soprano, which Turner employs on Ballard's lightly funky title track—propelled by the drummer's fluid interaction with Grenadier, as Turner shoots for the occasional rough-edge on a solo that's as focused and lyrical as it gets.

Light it may be, but Turner's "Elena Berenjena" possesses a light backbeat, while Grenadier's balladic "CJ" begins with a harmonic-driven bass solo that, when the group comes in, is played so gently that it rivals label-mate Tord Gustavsen's often whisper-like approach. Ballard, in particular, seems to be almost breathing on his drums, his brushwork so delicate that it's more often more felt than heard. Ballard's "Perla Morena" is reminiscent of some of the label's mid-'70s output, at once propulsive and dynamic but, with Turner's cued lines, open-ended and expressive. Ballard demonstrates his capacity for greater fire only occasionally, largely playing with remarkable restraint and complete attention to the nuances that this trio is capable of when serving the music, rather than having the music serve it.

Grenadier's "Transfigured" begins with a gentle arco in tandem with Turner's soprano, underscored by Ballard's gentle but turbulent underpinning before breaking into a more rhythm-centric solo section where Turner's debt to Wayne Shorter is in sharp focus even as his own voice remains clear and unmistakable.

Despite knee-jerk attempts to compare Fly to Sonny Rollins's trio work or, more recently, that of friend and occasional collaborator Joshua Redman—Fly carves its own niche. Delicate as a feather yet never lacking in substantive weight, Sky & Country is an album that will alter the perception of what saxophone trios can be.

Track Listing: Lady B; Sky & Country; Elena Berenjena; CJ; Dharma Days; Ananda Nanda; Perla Morena; Transfigured; Super Sister.

Personnel: Mark Turner: tenor and soprano saxophones; Larry Grenadier: double-bass; Jeff Ballard: drums.

Title: Sky & Country | Year Released: 2009 | Record Label: ECM Records

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