Wednesday, May 17, 2023

A Life in the Day

Photo: Emra Islek
Hard to believe that it's been five years since Rudy Royston debuted his Flatbed Buggy quintet, the ensemble that includes John Ellis (bass clarinet), Gary Versace (accordion), Hank Roberts (cello), and Joe Martin (acoustic bass).  The group's self-titled debut (issued by Greenleaf Music) certainly surprised a majority of the drummer/composer's fanbase in that the contents were far more than a "blowing session"; instead one heard a series of song stories that reflected Royston's upbringing in Texas and the images that invoked in his mind.  The music felt more "Americana", in line with the music that the drummer was playing in Bill Frisell's ensemble.  

"Day" (Greenleaf Music) reunites the band post-Pandemic.  The 10-song program (eight by Royston with one each from Martin and Roberts) finds an ensemble comfortable in taking chances, pushing at the edges of composition to create not only delightful interplay but also strong solos.  We move through the "Day" starting with "Morning", a melody that stretches out played over time by each musician.  When Ellis lays down a rhythmical bass clarinet line that the other members of the band add their voices to, one gets the sense the group is "riffing" on Aaron Copland––Roberts' fine solo takes its cue from the bass clarinet line before Versace pushes the forward in a dialogue with Ellis. All the while, the rhythm section dances with abandon.  "Thank You For This Day" opens with the cello melody that turns into rhythmical strumming over Martin's pulsating bass and the dancing high hat. Then, listen as the melody and solos unfold off the rollicking opening.

This album finds the quintet in more of a "barn dance" mode much of the time. "Five-Thirty Strut" kicks off with a melodic drum solo but then gets down and funky. Notice how Martin and Roberts lock into the groove (listen below and try to sit still) then get "jazzy" beneath Ellis's solo. Kudos to sound engineer and mixer for the clarity of the sound throughout the album.  "Keep It Moving" is still funky but slinkier as well, the well-drawn melody moving atop a delicious "walking bass" line.  Then, the cello play in unison for a while before a quick stop and into Martin's fine bass solo (hints of Charles Mingus's "Haitian Fight Song" in there). 

Photo: R Royston
The album closes with Royston's short prayer-ballad "Time to Sleep" before moving into Robert's "A.M. Hours", a playful creep down the stairs for a late-night snack.  The tip-toe quality of the melody is echoed in the cello and bass lines while the accordion watches from the top of the stairs with the bass clarinet looking over its shoulder.  The drummer and his trap set sit this tune out, perhaps sleeping while the spirits play.

No matter what, "Day" is a splendid album, music for a breezy day, for a Summer night, sounds that caress and play with the listener like a good friend. Rudy Royston continues to grow as an artist, facilitator, arranger, and composer: Flatbed Buggy now seems to be his central mode of musical transportation and you should climb aboard!

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Put on your dancing shoes for "Five-Thirty Strut":

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