Devin Gray – ‘Dirigo Rataplan II’ (2018)

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Six years after making one of the more impressively advanced debut records in jazz of recent memory, drummer, composer and bandleader Devin Gray returns to the scene of the crime.

Dirigo Rataplan was a record that in 2012 made me marvel “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 has convened an entirely new band for each of his five prior records; Dirigo Rataplan II is Gray going back to previously-used personnel for the first time, and the Dirigo Rataplan band is a dandy of a lineup: Michael Formanek (bass), Ellery Eskelin (sax) and Dave Ballou (trumpet) all excel at improvising within structure, which is just what Gray looks for in carrying out his charts. Mostly though, it’s about simpatico. And that becomes abundantly clear from the opening moments of “Congruently,” a simple statement from Eskelin and Ballou, countered by Formanek and Gray. And soon, the horn players lunge into competing solos as the rhythm section guide the cadence.

Similarly, “Rollin’ Thru Town” is on the surface a post-bop tune but upon closer inspection, the entangled interaction between Eskelin and Ballou suggests something beyond that is going on; it’s at once a complete divergence of the song and it’s the very center of it. “Texicate” begins as a personal exchange between Eskelin and Gray, with Ballou and Formanek discreetly inserting themselves into the conversation. Collectively, it’s bird-like chatter but everyone seems so in tune with everyone else. “Quantum Cryptology” is much like “Texicate” but with Ballou in Eskelin’s role and playing with a lot of command of his horn.

The further one goes along with this set of performances, the greater the recognition for the pivotal role the Formanek plays in them; all the little, ever-shifting things that happen on each song seem to swirl around him. On “Trends of Trending” Eskelin and Ballou again provide harmony to Formanek’s motif, but not for long before there’s a breakdown and emerging from that free moment is a nice little groove led by the bassist. Gray plays more to the wandering bass line than to a certain time signature for “The Wire,” which is a more than a little amazing since Formanek isn’t playing linearly. Formanek launches a descending ostinato that frames “What We Learn From Cities,” but Eskelin and Ballou’s patterns feel like another song overlaid on top of it and happens to fit, even when the bassist changes up to a new, knotty pattern. “The Feeling of Healing (for Steve Grover)” highlights Formanek on bowed bass, who uses drawn out notes to mingle with the horn players in a highly improvisational occasion that follows the composed intro. A loose swing permeates “Intrepid Travelers” and topped off by a galvanizing bass solo from Formanek.

“Micro Dosage” is a short coda to the whole project, a mostly unbound performance that again demonstrates how the musicians constantly feed off of each other.

The big accomplishment of the first Dirigo Rataplan was in Devin Gray’s insight in conceptualizing ways to get the most out of his fellow musicians and himself. That’s the same kind of brilliance found on Dirigo Rataplan II, now out on Rataplan Records.


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 jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, 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 [email protected] .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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