Inspired Improvisation from Drummer Devin Gray’s Dirigo Rataplan
Drummer Devin Gray’s recent Dirigo Rataplan – whose name is a mashup of Latin and French, meaning “I direct clip-clop” – is a funky record, especially for improvisational jazz. Bassist Michael Formanek’s full, woody sound complements Gray’s moody, resonantly toned kit – his snare has less snap than boom, and so does everything else for that matter. Gray is an eclectic player, taking the role of both minimalist and colorist here: this is a rare example of no beat going to waste. Saxophonist Ellery Eskelin and trumpeter Dave Ballou round out the band
The opening track, Quadrophonically grows out of a boomy, minimalist pulse into an elegant exercise in two-on-two teamwork, Ballou’s squawk trading with a genial, low-key Eskelin, shadowed by the bass and drums in tandem, rising to anxious and then a sudden calm. Cancel the Cancel features lively, terse horn harmonies over what’s essentially a hip-hop beat: Ballou and Eskelin swipe at each other, then Gray leads everybody down the rabbit hole, back up and down again in to a muffled surrealism that gives absolutely no hint of the surprise ending.
Down Time has the band working variations on a funk tune that go from woozy to wry: Gray’s spare resonance under Formanek’s chords and the horns’ nonchalant bubble is a clinic in how to do more with less. Likewise, early on in the Charles Ives homage Prospect Park in the Dark, Gray builds out of low-key binary horns to a point where most other drummers would bring in the cymbals – but he doesn’t, amping up the nocturnal vibe. Then Formanek tries to pull everybody up with him, but the effect is just the opposite: Gray’s ghostly washes and a final understatedly majestic whoosh put the icing on this crepuscular tableau.
They follow the tersely funky, tongue-in-cheek Talking with Hands with Otaku, spacious microtonally tinged individual lines converging and overlapping, with cleverly dynamic interplay from the whole band, a little trash talking and shadowing, and vividly shifting colors from Gray all the way through. Thickets, a Gerald Cleaver dedication, keeps its moody modalities in disguise until Formanek brings the shivers in – and gets the thing back on track just at the point where it seems like everybody else is ready to shut it down.
The album ends with Katahdin, named for the tallest mountain in Gray’s home state of Maine. There was once a lousy heavy metal cover band by that name – thankfully, this sounds nothing like them. Instead, it’s a catchy, good-natured shuffle that gives Ballou and then Eskelin plenty of space to get sardonic. The compositions’ heads are strong and the playing inspired and on-task: Gray runs a tight ship, knows the strengths of his players and writes to them. New York audiences can watch for a possible rescheduling of the band’s show that was on the calendar at Cornelia St. Cafe last night but may have been postponed for lack of electricity and/or public transit.
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