Devin Gray – Dirigo Rataplan (2012)

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Some artists begin their recording career as a leader rather tepidly, playing it safe with stable, derivative styles and often performing other people’s songs before stretching out, taking chances and establishing their own identities on later records. On the other end of this spectrum is the debut album by twenty-eight year old drummer, composer and now, leader, Devin Gray.

Devin Gray made some great connections as a student of music, among them a couple of major figures in the improvised music scene, trumpeter Dave Ballou and bassist Michael Formanek. Ballou and Formanek both teach in the Baltimore area, so Gray got to know and perform with both as a student at Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory. Before long, he was performing with saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, too, a native of Baltimore (Gray himself hails from the peaceful environs of Yarmouth, Maine).

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Formanek’s 2010 comeback record The Rub and Spare Change was my pick for modern and mainstream jazz album for that year. Find out why.]

Gray sat down and composed specifically for these players, and that is what forms the basis of his first led album Dirigo Rataplan. He explains it this way: “They can play anything — they can swing, they can read, they can play free — so it was a real challenge for me to challenge them, to find interesting ways to spur them.” He set up these challenges in a number of ways. too: Ballou and Eskelin are playing not just side-by-side but together in unison, harmony and interlocking lines, or improvising — a lot. At times, Formanek is cast in the same manner with Gray himself, other times, he’s put in charge of the maintaining the song’s pulse. The ever-shifting roles of the players give the music a certain dynamism that keeps it in constant motion.

Interestingly enough, it would appear that Gray saved the toughest challenge for himself on the opening track, “Quadraphonically,” because he’s continually moving in a out of timekeeping, sometimes following the harmonic lines, sometimes not, and often playing free in concert with Ballou and Eskelin. “Cancel The Cancel” is a meticulous construction whereby seemingly disparate individual performances are cleverly put together in a way that makes sense. On this song and on “Katahdin,” Gray and Formanek together tame an impossible rhythmic pattern and the horn players navigate right through it with little effort. “Talking With Hands” involves intricate, funky interaction among Eskelin, Ballou and Gray, as Formanek is set free to provide countering lines. Other selections, such as “Otaku” and “Thickets” are almost entirely free jazz. These songs land on their feet because the trust is there amongst the four.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: We examine a track “43 RPM” by Eskelin/Parkins/Black that shows why this trio was a special one.]

As a drummer, Gray doesn’t show any tendencies, utilizing everything available to him from his kit. A detailed colorist rather than a basher, these are qualities he could have gotten from another hero of his and a Formanek colleague, Gerald Cleaver. You can often hear him make his drums into a fourth tonal instrument.

Devin Gray’s flair for composing complex music for complex musicians and then leading them from behind the drum kit, is something you don’t normally see from “rookie” recording artists, especially in the realm of advanced jazz. Gray proves he can handle it. Dirigo Rataplan is one of the more impressive advanced jazz debuts not of just this year, but of the last several years.

Dirigo Rataplan released on April 10, 2012 by Skirl Records. Visit Devin Gray’s website for more info.

Purchase Dirigo Rataplan here.

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S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on,, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at
S. Victor Aaron
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