Imaginative, Witty New Jazz from the John Yao Quintet
Trombonist John Yao’s new quintet album, In the Now – out now from Innova – blends vivid tunefulness, clever composition and inspired teamwork. It’s accessible, but it’s also cerebral, and there’s also considerable wit here, as you would expect from a group including Mostly Other People Do the Killing’s Jon Irabagon on saxes. Although Yao is a versatile stylist with considerable big band experience – notably with Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra - his approach here is typically methodical and precise. He and Irabagon often work a cool/hot dynamic alongside Randy Ingram on piano, Leon Boykins on bass and Will Clark on drums. While there are plenty of echoes of classic 60s postbop tropes, Yao’s arrangements and voicings are original, imaginative and completely in the here and now.
Tersely shifting countermelodies between the horns introduce the opening track, Divisions, Ingram introducing a spaciously lyrical style that he’ll work memorably throughout the album, a succession of solos contrasting Yao’s matter-of-factness with Irabagon’s jaunty, clustering, often flutelike alto work. They take it out unexpectedly quietly. Track two, Funky Sunday, builds a sense of anticipation with intensely focused trombone/sax harmonies, a smartly minimalist rhythm section arrangement that only opens up when the horns diverge and become more carefree, and some very imaginatively textured organ – including a pedal solo – by Ingram. For NDJ, a jazz waltz, is a showcase for Irabagon’s silvery, rapidfire legato versus Yao’s stately insistence, with echoey Rhodes piano from Ingram and a judiciously paced bass solo from Boykins.
The title track alludes to a late 50s style bustle – carried by the piano rather than the horns – over constant rhythmic shifts, from swing to hesitation, Ingram echoing Irabagon’s microtonal attack which rather amusingly shifts back and forth from haphazard to focused and back again. Not Even Close also has a cleverness that may be satirical, right from the start, as the sax and trombone lock in and then the whole band goes off on individual tangents. There’s another series of handoffs between Yao and Irabagon and a defiant refusal to resolve anything: they leave that to Ingram, who takes it from spaciously and warily chromatic to join Boykins’ and Clark’s casual swing.
A bright, funkily syncopated number, Pink Eye follows the same trajectory as the second track here with a series of light/dark and serious/playful dichotomies, Irabagon going as far out on a limb as he can with predictably snarky results. The strongest track here, the slowly swaying Shorter Days, is the only particularly pensive one: Ingram’s moody tonalities suspensefully shadowing Irabagon and Yao slowly turn to Neoromantic and completely turn the tune around, the sax and trombone’s richly lyrical, bucolic harmonies taking it out on an unexpectedly triumphant note.The album ends with Snafu, the most outright amusing track: it’s sort of a Taxi Driver Theme groove, but a wee-hours one without much of a hint at where it’s going. When it starts to fall apart, the band employs a gimmick that’s been used for ages in soul music, and rock, and bluegrass but not so often in jazz: the wait for the whole quintet to throw up their hands and say the hell with it is the most entertaining part.
Yao’s next New York performance with the quintet is October 5 at 8 PM at the Firehouse Space, 246 Frost St. in Williamsburg.
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