When Fly, a noteworthy piano-less trio with an unremarkable name, made its self-titled debut album in 2004 on Savoy Jazz, tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard manifested their mission: to trump stale round-robin soloing with vibrant collective interplay. Without a designated “leader,” they conversed equally, with no member dominating, and they mused rather than blasting off. This success led to an ECM signing, which yielded the impressive 2009 CD, Sky & Country, and Fly’s latest recording, Year of the Snake, which teems with their signature lyricism, urgency and whimsy. Arriving nearly a year before the next Chinese New Year (the snake will be the Chinese zodiac sign for 2013), the graceful, mysterious Year of the Snake furthers Fly’s quest to communally explore the extraordinary.
As young veterans — Grenadier and Ballard are best known these days as pianist Brad Mehldau’s rhythm section while Turner, in addition to his own solo career, has worked with a range of top-tier players from guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel to drummer Billy Hart — the three musicians boast the interplay of trios with much longer histories. The hour-long recording, produced by ECM head Manfred Eicher features an interweaving of five short improvised vignettes (under the title “The Western Lands”) as well as composed pieces, such as Turner’s celebratory “Festival Tune,” Ballard’s playful “Diorite,” and Ballard-Grenadier’s “Salt and Pepper” that swings coolly, with Turner playing the lead and Grenadier serving up a bluesy bass solo. Especially striking is Grenadier’s pensive suite-like expedition “Kingston.” “The Western Lands” vignettes provide the unifying effect on Year of the Snake. In the album’s notes, Grenadier says the intriguing short pieces are titled thusly because of the notion that the West is where people go to “reinvent themselves.” The same can be said for Fly — all members bred in California — whose music captivatingly reinvigorates the jazz trio format.