Trio of One: Fly at the Jazz Standard

Eric Benson By

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The band's egalitarian nature didn't mean that each member subverted his identity; rather, the delight of Fly's music was hearing Turner, Grenadier, and Ballard shape the contours of the music out of their differences.
Jazz Standard
New York, NY
April 10, 2009

Instruments are versatile husks, possessing limited range and a particular timbre, but no set personality of their own. The piano can channel the thoughts of musicians as different from one another as Cecil Taylor and Bill Evans; the saxophone can express the passions of Stan Getz just as easily as it can those of Albert Ayler. Yet despite the diversity, instruments get broadly typecast: the trumpet with Miles' feline cool (even if it has another life in its blaring Gillespie-Sandoval incarnation); the saxophone with brash searchers like Hawk, Bird, and Trane; the piano with a host of intellectual iconoclasts from Monk to Ethan Iverson.


Saxophonist Mark Turner strikes me as a pianist who happens to play saxophone. Tall and rail-thin, not so much ascetic as supremely un-wasteful, Turner approaches each note with pensive intensity. He constructs his solos from the intricate assemblage of intervals, not, like many of his peers, from gushing melodic runs. It would be almost impossible to hum along to Turner's solos, not because they're remarkably fast—they rarely are—but because their sensibility is so harmonic, so textural, and so deeply attuned to the subtle adjustments of the rest of the band. Every time Turner plays, you can hear him listen, and I haven't figured out yet how to hum along to the sound of listening.

Intense group listening is the force that animates Fly—the trio of Turner, bassist FLY, and drummer Jeff Ballard—which played a stellar first set last Friday at the Jazz Standard in support of its new album Sky & Country. Instead of following tradition by ceding the starring role to the saxophonist, the members of Fly share leadership and compositional duties equally, leading to a nuanced and constantly shifting three-way conversation.

Fly makes this work by leaving a lot of open spaces. These aren't moments of silence, but moments of anticipation and contemplation—a concluding note or beat allowed to drift for a brief instant as Turner, Grenadier, or Ballard (and sometimes all three) considers the best response. Occasionally, all three musicians pause during these moments; but more often one musician's brief pause is layered on top of the others' continued playing: Turner strides through a phrase, lets the last note resonate through the room, and adjusts to Ballard's one-two on the high toms or Grenadier's light-footed walk. These adjustments may be more audible in certain moments than others, but the music's constant shifts of pace and posture suggest that Turner, Grenadier, and Ballard carefully consider the collective sound before every note they play.

The band's egalitarian nature didn't mean that each member subverted his identity; rather, the delight of Fly's music was hearing Turner, Grenadier, and Ballard shape the contours of the music out of their differences. On the sweet, yet angular "Elena Berenjena," Turner and Grenadier played the melody softly in unison as Ballard tapped out a driving beat with snick-snack precision. The juxtaposition of Turner's restrained intensity and Ballard's more extroverted approach gave the tune its character and made it work. In other hands, the enigmatic composition might have drifted; in Fly, a buoyant groove gave it a strong sense of direction.

On Turner's "Super Sister," the band's ability to groove inside of subtle, shifting compositions had its most celebratory display. The composition sounded like a catchy anthem that had learned to distrust its own enthusiasm, both uplifting and world-weary. Every time it bordered on easy pleasures, Turner surprised us, playing a note that was softer and sadder than expected.

This added pathos didn't diminish the tune's energy. At the beginning of the set, Grenadier had played off Turner, occupying the same tonal range and sometimes joining him on the melody. On "Super Sister," Grenadier teamed with Ballard to bring the music to a boil. Grenadier and Ballard have played together with Brad Mehldau for the last several years, and their extended partnership has forged a flexible, explosive rapport.

On Ballard's "Child's Play," the evening's final number, Turner leaped exuberantly into the fray, delivering his most assertive solo. The music wasn't "burning" in the classic bebop cutting session use of the word, its intensity was deeper, more complicated, more deserved. When Turner fired off line after line, he sounded like he'd become part of the rhythm section, joining Grenadier and Ballard in their hard-driving pocket. The connection between the three musicians had been clear on every tune, but on "Child's Play," the small separations and silences vanished. Three accomplished musicians had become one beautiful instrument.

Photo Credit

Claire Stefani


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