Friday, July 29, 2022

Off-Kilter Yet On Point

Photo: Peter Koloff

Trombonist and composer John Yao is a busy musician and teacher. He leads several different ensembles including a hard-hitting 17-member big band, he has played in and continues to play in numerous ensembles including Terraza 7 Big Band, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, and Manuel Valera's New Cuban Express Big Band. Yao has issued five albums as a leader or co-leader including two with his Quintet, one with the Big Band, and one with the piano-less quintet known as Triceratops.  That group has a unique front line––besides the trombonist/composer stands Jon Irabagon (tenor and soprillo saxophones) and Billy Drewes (alto and soprano saxophones). Their 2019 debut album, "How We Do" (See Tao Records) featured the rhythm section of Peter Brendler (bass) and Mark Ferber (drums); my review stated "the eight-song program is a delight from start to finish" and upon listening again recently, I stand by that review (read here).  

Triceratops second album, "Off-Kilter" (See Tao), finds the original lineup intact save for Robert Sabin who is now the bassist.  The sound of the band has not changed with the blend of the reeds with the trombone creating fascinating interplay. What stands out for this listener is that Yao's compositions (he composed eight of the nine pieces on this album with Billy Drewes contributing the other). His melodies are so strong, well-developed, and not just quick themes for blowing over. Take "Crosstalk" with its interweaving lines for the front line, bopping beat, and the solid walking bass line.  Listen below to "Labyrinth" and how the playful intro gives way to a delightful blues with a few side-trips (into tempo changes, speed-ups, slow-downs). The quintet keeps one on the edge of your seat to see where the music is going  next. A piece such as "The Morphing Line" has the feel of Dave Holland's Prime Directive especially in the flexibility of the rhythm section (Ferber is fantastic throughout the program).  It's not imitative, just uses Holland's sound as a springboard. 

The title track closes the album. The music moves at a high speed and the solo peels off from the melody.  Drewes' alto spot leaps above the rumbling bass line and the rapid-fire drumming.  The solo concludes with a return to the opening theme and––no surprise––the tempo downshifts for a moment so that the front line can play a short chorale with Ferber adding to the melody.  Then, a rapid ascending bass line leads the band back to the original tempo and the opening melody with cut-outs for a call-and-response with Ferber.  

"Off-Kilter" is right on target, modern music for adventurous minds.  John Yao's Triceratops is quite alive, playing with fire, with joy, spirited interactions that jump out of the speakers.  Throughout the program, the blend that Billy Drewes and Jon Irabgon get with the leader is fun to listen to and, at times, quite exciting.  Give this music a good, close, listen and the rewards will be plentiful!

For more information, go to  To hear more and to purchase this and other albums by Mr. Yao, go to

Hear the mysterious yet playful "Labyrinth":

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