Year Of The Snake
Monday, July 02, 2012
Reviewed by: Ian Mann
“Year Of The Snake” sees Fly successfully expanding on the template of “Sky & Country” and achieving an admirable lyricism and breadth of colour within the apparent confines of the saxophone trio.
“Year Of The Snake”
(ECM Records ECM 2235 277 6644)
“Year Of The Snake” represents Fly’s second release for ECM. The American saxophone trio’s first outing for the label, 2009’s “Sky & Country” is reviewed elsewhere on this site by my co-writer Tim Owen. Tim certainly enjoyed that particular recording and I was similarly impressed by the group’s live performance at the 2010 Cheltenham Jazz Festival.
Originally convened as the Jeff Ballard Trio, Fly consists of the long established rhythm team of Ballard (drums) and Larry Grenadier (double bass) plus the critically acclaimed Mark Turner (tenor saxophone). Ballard and Grenadier are perhaps best known as the engine room of pianist Brad Mehldau’s hugely popular trio but it is Turner who is arguably Fly’s most distinctive component. His understated but innovative style on tenor saxophone is strongly influenced by the late Warne Marsh and much of his work takes place in the instrument’s upper or altissimo register. Fly are not about producing blustering solos in the macho post Sonny Rollins saxophone tradition. Instead they are more concerned with melody, colour, nuance and texture . Their music has a high melodic content and a delicate subtlety that makes them ideal for the ECM aesthetic. Having said that their live appearances, certainly those at Cheltenham and at London’s Charlie Wright’s, have revealed a more “full on” side to their music making with some virtuoso and sometimes barnstorming playing. I remember being particularly impressed with Grenadier at Cheltenham, the bassist generating some monster grooves and producing some astonishingly agile solos in a display of enormous physical resourcefulness.
“Year Of The Snake” picks up where “Sky & Country” left off with each of the members of this most democratic of trios contributing compositions to the album. There is also a series of brief, wholly improvised vignettes interspersed throughout the album under the general title “The Western Lands”, these being extemporisations on Turner’s initial “The Western Lands” theme which opens the album. “The Western Lands I” features the altissimo whisper of Turner’s tenor sax, the reined in power of Ballard’s brushed drums and Grenadier on rich, cello like arco bass. It’s a highly atmospheric opening vignette that epitomises the painterly qualities of much of the trio’s music making.
Turner’s “Festival Tune” is based around Grenadier’s springy bass grooves and Ballard’s neatly energetic drumming with Turner’s fluent saxophone establishing an air of emotional ambiguity. He varies his tone and the length of his lines to suggest not only the air of celebration implied in the title but also a feeling of underlying melancholia. It’s an impressively mature piece of work with Turner and Grenadier making particularly impressive contributions.
The brief thirty second flurry of “The Western Lands II” takes us into Turner’s “Brothersister”, a slow burner of a tune featuring Turner’s long, gently brooding lines, Grenadier’s unique combination of lyricism and groove and Ballard’s economical drumming. As I’ve observed before I’ve sometimes found Ballard to be an overwhelming presence in the context of the Mehldau trio but he seems far more at home here in a group of which he is still the unofficial leader.
Ballard’s own “Diorite” is more playful, anchored by Grenadier’s insidious bass pulse cum groove and featuring Ballard’s colourful, gently polyrhythmic drumming allied to Turner’s wonderfully sinuous tenor sax.
The centre piece of the album is Grenadier’s “Kingston” which unfolds organically and beguilingly over its ten minute duration. Grenadier’s superb arco playing features prominently on the introduction, intuitively shadowed by Ballard’s drums. The close understanding between the two, honed over many years of playing together, is perfectly illustrated here. It’s likely that the intro was largely improvised but the emergence of the main theme introduces a bustling urgency driven by Grenadier’s powerfully plucked grooves and the controlled urgency of Ballard’s drums. Turner’s sax weaves a way through the rhythms with typical sure footedness. He may be an undemonstrative player but he’s an astonishingly fluent soloist and improviser who has effectively devised a new vocabulary for his instrument. This epic piece then mutates into an astonishing passage for saxophone, arco bass and drums, sometimes with Turner and Grenadier doubling up, at other times exchanging counter melodies above the urgent shimmer of Ballard’s cymbals. The piece concludes with a brief reprise of the opening passage. Blurring the lines between composition and improvisation this is Fly at their best, Grenadier’s arco bass giving the group an “extra dimension” and making them sound “bigger” than a trio (Ballard’s words).
Jointly written by Ballard and Turner the loping blues “Salt And Pepper” represents the trio at their most conventional and arguably most accessible with Grenadier contributing yet another stunning pizzicato bass solo.
“The Western Lands III” is delicate, impressionistic improvisation with Ballard’s percussion (claves, shakers, bells) a key component alongside long lined tenor whisperings and delicately strummed bass. Like the other pieces in the series it’s a kind of improvised tone poem, the function of which is to act as a staging post between the more formal compositions.
Ballard’s “Benj” is driven by the restless bustle of his own drumming supported by Grenadier’s muscular bass grooves. Turner spins consistently melodic inventions above the busy rhythms churning beneath, but for all the urgency the saxophonist’s unique style ensure that the music remains largely within Fly’s self imposed “chamber jazz” aesthetic.
Turner’s title track is the album’s second focal point, another vehicle for his own unique softly spoken serpentine soloing above a backdrop of contrastingly busy bass and drums. Turner’s purity of tone is remarkable on this nine minute excursion that once again straddles the demarcation lines between composition and improvisation. His light, airy tone hardly sounds like a tenor saxophone at all.
The album concludes with two final improvised snippets, “The Western Lands IV” and “V”. Both highly atmospheric: “IV” features eerily bowed bass and percussive rustlings while “V” focusses on the spooky sound of Ballard’s cymbals as he approximates the tolling of bells.
“Year Of The Snake” sees Fly successfully expanding on the template of “Sky & Country” and achieving an admirable lyricism and breadth of colour within the apparent confines of the saxophone trio. All three players are superb technicians but its Turner’s unique sound that sets them apart from the numerous other groups working in this format. His ego-less commitment to extending the sound of his instrument and to the exploration of beauty represents a major step forward on the tenor sax. He doesn’t adopt a conventional ballad tone, yet like label mate Jan Garbarek he still manages to distil the essence of a piece, all this with a tone that can sound fragile but is never weak. There’s a rigorous logic to Turner’s playing that is perfectly suited to this pared down trio setting and his breath control and purity of tone is frequently stunning. That’s not to take anything away from Ballard and Grenadier, the bassist in particular is superb throughout and his “Kingston” represents the stand out track on a very good album.
JAZZ MANN FEATURES
The sun shines on the final day of an excellent festival.
Ian Mann soaks up the vibes at Cheltenham Jazz Festival.