As a member of many an experimental or edgy band (Herculaneum, Cursive, Icy Demons, Michael Columbia), it’s not hard to surmise that when drummer Dylan Ryan got around to leading his own band, it would be out on the margins of music, too. Sand, as his outfit is called, is a probing, open-ended improvisational trio, which isn’t all that surprising given not just the pedigree of Ryan, by those of his cohorts. Guitarist Tim Young has made music with Wayne Horvitz’s Zony Mash before moving on to John Zorn, Marc Ribot, Fiona Apple and Beck. Devin Hoff, the bassist has been involved in a lot of notable projects, too, but I’ll always think of him as the guy holding down the bottom in what’s probably the most dangerous trio in all of progressive jazz, The Nels Cline Singers.
Not that Sand isn’t at least a little threatening, themselves. Next week, the Ryan-led group will issue their first album, Sky Bleached, and like the Singers, it’s alternately pretty and frightening, contemplative and all-out improvisational, airy and dense. And like most jazz drummers, Ryan places much value in democracy, acting as the catalyst that puts the other two in the best positions to shine and then just let them do their things. Ryan does shine himself, but always in the context of the group and the compositions he devised for the band.
Early on, Ryan is putting down odd meters, like the 5/4 pace of “White Nights” that doesn’t at all swing like the most famous 5/4 song in jazz, Take Five.” But it does feature Young’s talent for distributing his notes tactfully over Hoff’s repeating bass groove. Following that, Ryan’s 7/8 pulse that sets “Barocco” into motion has a Caribbean feel to it (as does the beat he employs for the group improv, “Sky Bleached”), but the way Young reacts to it is just as alluring. He plays spaciously and subtly inserts atmospheric textures to create both contrast and completeness to Ryan’s unique beat making. “Psychic Journey” has some unusual time signatures, too, but the featured attraction of the song is Young building up from thoughtful single-note articulations to full-throated chord banging. Young and Ryan play closely together on “Translucent Spheres,” whereas group improvisation and jamming prevail on “Dreamspell.” Sometimes the drummer will virtually solo behind the band (“Time Stalkers”) or serve a straight-at-ya hard backbeat (“White Magic”).
The freaky part of the album are the three middle tracks: “Mayan Sun” begins with a guitar straight outta Tommy Iommi, and then Young captures a Nels Cline psychotic episode on the aforementioned “White Magic.” “Soft Rain On A Dead Sea” is that spooky kind of ambient, beginning with Hoff’s bowed bass creating yawning, straining notes alongside Young’s.
It’s a little hard to pin down a singular character that adequately describes what Sky Bleached is about, since each song involves a different degree of freedom and tonality (or atonality). But if there’s anything that ties the whole album together, it’s the astute musicianship of all three. Dylan Ryan figured that he could bring rough sketches to the band and they can make something meaningful from them. His faith in the process and the people involved in that process paid off.