Thursday, August 02, 2012

CD Review: Devin Gray - Dirigo Rataplan

Devin Gray
Dirigo Rataplan

Dear Skirl,
Good to hear from you again. I always look forward to hearing new releases on your label.Those 5X7 soft covers that you use really stick out in a crowd.

Now you might remember that I've groused on this very blog about the artwork on your CD covers. Well, not so much the artwork as the point size of the type. On previous releases, it was usually pretty hard to read the credits, which are important on albums like yours. We have to make sure credit is given to the artists. I never cared for the Wes Wilson-esque idea that the look of the information was more important than the information itself, which had to be dug out of the concert posters he designed in the mid '60s.

I'm not going to conclude that it was my opinion that led to this, but I was glad to see that, on Devin Gray's debut CD, the writing is much bigger. So thanks. And I hate to sound like I'll never be happy, but geez, man - black print on a dark red background that fades into black? It's just as much of a challenge trying to read the song titles. One day after listening to Dirigo Rataplan in the car, I held up the cover in direct sunlight and only then could I see the titles on the back cover (I scanned the front and back above because it's important to see the look of the whole package) but you can't really expect most of you listeners to arrive at such conclusions.

With that out of the way, I have to say drummer Gray has put together a really strong debut as a leader. On the first couple listens, tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin and trumpeter Dave Ballou sounded like they were doing a lot of blowing without really connecting. But the more I zoomed in on them, it became clear they interact a lot throughout the album. They're virtually spinning phrases together in "Quadraphonically" first during the theme, and as the tune opens up when Ballou keeps ending Eskelin's thoughts with a high chirp. In the freer "Otaku" they offer dual commentary that  adds to the way Gray stirs up a free direction from his kit.

"Down Time" has a steady 4/4 backbeat and Michael Formanek's bass line almost sounds like "Day Tripper." Ballou plays over the steady groove then it slows down for Eskelin who goes completely solo for a significant portion of his melodic solo. Knowing the saxophonist from his earlier trio recordings, this feels a little subdued but it's still a great work."Thickets," dedicated to Gray's mentor Gerald Cleaver, gives Ballou the chance to briefly play solo. There is a great moment of synchronicity when he enters at 3:15 after a few silent seconds. Gray gets a high pitch on a cymbal right on top of a high trumpet blast, with the result almost sounds like a keyboard blast. Kudos to Formanek for some excellent bowing work in this track too.

Sometimes it was easy to forget that the leader of the group was Gray, which is to say he's not an overbearing player and neither are these eight tracks focused on the drums. He does provide some exciting moments, full of great splatters and crashes. In his homage to Charles Ives, "Prospect Park in the Dark," his use of mallets on the cymbals gives the piece a lot of color.

So Skirl, please excuse the lateness of my reply. And if the format of this review bugs you, forgive me and let's just chalk it up to an early morning experiment based on a crazy idea. I'm not trying to be sanctimonious, just trying a slightly different take on the opinion format.



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