Thursday, October 4, 2018

Creative Explorations by Groups of Equals

Rudy Royston is one those drummers who makes an impact on the musicians he works with from the first note of a song. He plays with such fire, often pushing his fellow musicians to greater heights and, to my mind, more powerful solos.  Royston, a Texas native who came of age in Denver, CO, studied music in college but really learned about his craft (not just playing but composing, arranging, and listening) while working with trumpeter Ron Miles.  He's gone on to play with a great number of musicians including Bill Frisell, Dave Douglas. J.D. Allen, Ravi Coltrane, and Rudresh Mahanthappa.  In person, he's a joy to watch, mostly because he always looks like he's having the time of his life.

"Flatbed Buggy" is Rudy Royston's third album as a leader as well as the third to released by Greenleaf Music.  For this effort, which reaches back to the drummer and composer's childhood memories, he's gathered a topnotch group of collaborators including Gary Versace (accordion), John Ellis (bass clarinet, saxophones), Hank Roberts (cello), and Joe Martin (bass).  Those of you expecting a collection of hard-blowing "jams" will be pleasantly surprised by the delicate nature of much of this material and how melodic the material.  That does not mean it's "wimpy" or "smooth jazz" - tracks such as "Hourglass", "the opening "Soul Train" (sorry, no Don Cornelius), and the effervescent "Bobblehead" dance out of the speakers.  Yet, it's the blend of accordion and cello, the way Ellis weaves his bass clarinet in and out the music or adds his soprano to the exciting performance of "Bobblehead" that stand out.  Yes, this music has power and it comes from the interactions, from the irrepressible rhythms, the solid foundation that Martin's excellent bass work provides.  On occasion, you may hear the influence of Mr. Frisell's "Americana" music or the way the late Jimmy Giuffre weave folk melodies into his music but this is Rudy Royston telling his own tales.

Each song has a storyline.  "boy...MAN" opens with a lovely cello melody and then wraps that around there accordion and cello.  Here, Royston guides the ensemble forward, opening the piece up to a strong bass solo that builds intensity to a powerful close.  Later on in the program, "girl...Woman" starts as a lovely ballad again with Roberts in the lead and Versace playing counterpoint and in unison.  The track includes a stunning accordion solo, introspective and gentle, ref;active of a day spent in the country.  Ellis, Versace, and Martin weave their individual sounds each other over the quiet colors of cello and the leader's cymbals.  But, even with all these quiet interactions, the quintet drops into a lively, "pop music" groove to take the piece out.

"Flatbed Buggy" is one of those albums to listen to all the way through.  There's so much to "hear", so many stories and histories embedded in this music that it's impossible to appreciate what Rudy Royston has so majestically created on one pass through.  At times stunning, at others times, joyful yet always melodic and rhythmically rich, this album deserves your full attention!

For more information, go to

Put on your dancing shoes and listen to this:

Trumpeter and composer Jonathan Finlayson, long-time collaborator of saxophonist Steve Coleman, continues to spread his creative wings on "3 Times Around" his third album for Pi Recordings.  The new album features pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist John Hébert, and drummer Craig Weinrib, all of whom appeared on Finlayson's 2017 Pi release, "Moving Still", and replaces guitarist Miles Okazaki with tenor saxophonist/flutist Brian Settles and alto saxophonist Steve Lehman.  While the influence of Mr. Coleman is evident on the opening two tracks and the impressive 14-minute opus "The Moon Is New", this music is no cookie-cutter impression of Finlayson's mentor's music.

"Feints" and "Grass" open the program, their exciting rhythms and percussive melodies (and counterpoint) making for intense listening. The first extended solo one hears on cut one is by Mitchell - he does not disappoint as his solo hurtles ahead as he interacts with with Weinrib's powerful drumming spurring him on.  Then, the interplay of Settles, Lehman, and Finlayson soars atop the dynamic rhythm section.

The pace changes when you enter the rubato world of "A Stone, A Pond, A Thought" - here, the trumpet leads the saxes in atop rumbling piano, thrumming bass, and various "colors" from the drummer.  Hébert's impressive bow-work is featured in the middle of the nine-minute "sound sculpture" before the sextet returns to push the intensity higher but never falling into a rhythm.  That intensity carries over to the episodic "The Moon Is New" - after the powerful opening, the piece moves in several directions and puts the spotlight squarely on The leader, Lehman, Settles, and Mitchell, all the while the rhythm section scurrying around under those soloists.  The shorter yet no-less-powerful "Refined Strut" follows and the music is as advertised.  Concentrate on how the rhythm section creates the irresistible "strut" and the on how the reeds and trumpet decorate the melody.

Photo: Paul de Lucena
"3 Times Round" is dedicated to the late Muhal Richard Abrams (1930-2017) and the conceptualist/composer's sense of adventure is a large influence on how Jonathan Finlayson approaches his original music.  The sound of this ensemble is so full yet never cluttered nor cliched.  The sextet is emotionally and musically attached to this project all the way through - I really enjoy listening to and am deeply impressed by the playfulness of Craig Weinrib as he dances along with the ensemble.

For more information, go to

Here's the album's opening track:

Although you do not see it anywhere on the album cover, this is the second album from the quartet known as Dirigo Rataplan. The ensemble, organized by drummer and composer Devin Gray, features trumpeter David Ballou, tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, and bassist Michael Formanek.  In 2004, Gray assemble a trio owht the trumpeter and bassist, adding the tenor sax to the mix after moving to New York City several years later.  Their 2012 debut album, originally released on SKIRL Records, sets the soundstage for the quartet's new release.  Gray's music takes its influences from myriad sources, from folk melodies, funk rhythms, and blues changes, from "free" explorations and the classic interactions of Ornette Coleman's Quartet from the Atlantic Records years (1959-61) to create its contemporary sounds.

Chamber Music America
It's a real joy to hear how these musicians play together, how they explore the various routes that Gray's compositions offer them. When you have four such individual voices, the music can either be an exercise in technical virtuosity or a four-way street with everyone listening to each other, conversing as equals, giving the music their full attention.  That's what you get with "Dirigo Rataplan II". One supposes you could listen just for Eskelin's melodic saxophone or Ballou's articulated melodies and exploratory solos or Formanek's fascinating bass work (who has a more melodic approach to the bass than him?) or how Gray leads the band without commanding the spotlight.
Listen to "Quantum Cryptology" to hear how the band navigates the melody line and how each gets a solo while the rhythm section creates a different yet interactive foundation/counterpoint.  Note how "Trends of Trending" opens in the pocket then moves inward, the trumpet and saxophone conversing across the bass and drums. Hear how Formanek's bass lines up high on the neck of his instrument dances over the scuttling drums on "What We Learn from Cities." The softness of the opening of "Intrepid Travelers" hints at blues for the first half then moves subtly away.

Dirigo Rataplan II" contains music that asks you to listen, does not beseech the listener, but seduces with its melodies and interplay/interactions as well as the intelligence of the music.  Is this strictly intellectual music? A kind of "highbrow jazz"?  What Devin Gray has created with Ellery Eskelin, David Ballou, and Michael Formanek is a delight from start to finish.

For more information, go to  The quartet appears tomorrow in CT at Firehouse 12 - go to for more information. They'll travel down to Baltimore, MD, on the next day and back to Philadelphia, PA, to close their short tour.  For more information, go to

Here's the opening track:

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