It’s something of a jazz convention that piano-less quartets consisting of two horn players plus a bassist and drummer will always be muscled-up, raucous affairs. That drummer Devin Gray has chosen tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin and trumpeter Dave Ballou, two powerhouse improvisers, along with the virtuosic bassist Michael Formanek, as his partners on Dirigo Rataplan might suggest that he’s inclined to conform to the stereotype. He isn’t: Dirigo Rataplan is more about brains than about brawn.
Gray likes to play with lots of pulse, but he’s not vulgar in its execution; on “Quadraphonically,” he manages to construct a deep groove despite utilizing a series of figures that stop and start. Formanek is a master at creating a strong, tensile underpinning, and he does so here. That leaves the horn players free to use lots of space in their solos.
On “Cancel the Cancel,” Gray’s tom-tom figures combine with some propulsive lines from Formanek. Ballou and Eskelin, trading lines back and forth and really communicating with one another. The Charles Ives tribute “Prospect Park in the Dark” actually reminded me of Ornette Coleman’s “The Garden of Souls,” which when I initially heard it reminded me of Ives’s “St.Gauden’s” from “Three Places in New England.” So we’ve come full circle. Dark and meditative, this is an austere, beautiful piece of music. “Okatu” is more aggressive than most of the album’s other material, and it gives both horn players a chance to bear down harder than elsewhere. Bass and drums provide the necessary octane to support them. The second tribute piece, “Thickets,” is dedicated to drummer Gerald Cleaver, who has emerged in the first decade of the century as one of the most significant percussions in jazz (or in new music in general). Not drum-centric, as it turns out, “Thickets” is driven largely by Formanek’s upper register arco bass. Eskelin plays an emotional solo, maneuvering between breathy lower tones and his delicate top register. Ballou uses tiny squeaks and smears, short vocalized passages that effortlessly command the stage. The album concludes with “Katahdin,” a sort of ersatz Second Line drum figure (Ed Blackwell would have loved Gray’s playing here) over which Ballou and then Eskelin play driving solos. Gray shifts rhythmic emphasis to accommodate them while Formanek digs in very hard underneath. It’s a powerful conclusion to a cohesive and compelling recording session.