Sunday, July 8, 2018

USA: Drummer-Composer Devin Gray reconvenes his Dirigo Rataplan band of master musicians for follow-up to acclaimed first album

Drummer-Composer Devin Gray reconvenes his Dirigo Rataplan band of 
master musicians for follow-up to acclaimed first album 

Dirigo Rataplan II​
 –   due out September 21, 2018, via Rataplan Records – showcases a striking set of original Gray compositions featuring saxophonist 
Ellery Eskelin, bassist Michael Formanek and trumpeter Dave Ballou 

“A musician-drummer rather than a drummer-drummer, Gray is interested in making music that is deeply evocative …  shaped by a fizzing, often restless push-pull energy.” — Jazzwise

There are times when music lovers can just feel a talent coming into his or her own, when that artist is someone to catch onstage or on record at every opportunity. Drummer-composer Devin Gray has arrived at such a moment.

The Brooklyn-based artist made his leader debut in 2012 with the Skirl Records release Dirigo Rataplan​, which featured him fronting the eponymous band with trumpeter Dave Ballou, tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin and bassist Michael Formanek, each a master improviser renowned far and wide among fans of creative music. Cadence magazine declared that initial disc to be “fantastic,” while JazzTimes said that Gray’s debut represented “the work of a young artist who knows who he is.” The Free Jazz  blog encapsulated the album this way: “This music is all about soul, with technical skills and finesse fully at the service of the end result, full of surprises, emotion and a deep-rooted sense of pulse. One of the best debut albums in years.”

Now, after six years of intensive experience performing and recording as leader and sideman on both sides of the Atlantic, Gray has reconvened this all-star group for Dirigo Rataplan II, which will be released on CD, vinyl, digitally and for streaming via Rataplan Records on September 21, 2018. Time Out New York has praised Gray’s compositions for balancing “formal elasticity with a meticulous sense of pacing.” The new album brims with more earworm melody, richly implied harmony and a loose-limbed sense of rhythm as something physical and flowing – as blood, as breath. Fans of jazz from Ornette Coleman and Henry Threadgill to Dave Holland and Craig Taborn will
dig this organic, engrossing mix of composition and improvisation, structure and freedom, atmosphere and dynamism. Recorded at Systems Two in Brooklyn, Dirigo Rataplan II is music in touch with tradition even as it resonates fully in the moment. A five-minute highlight reel from the album can be streamed here.

About the evolution of Dirigo Rataplan and his writing for the band, Gray says: “I’ve become more at ease with following my natural artistic impulses. The experiences I’ve had over the past six years have been so inspiring – in the intense, ultra-energized New York jazz scene, of course, but also in Europe, where players in improvised music are so open to different genres and have this holistic approach to art and creativity. Coming back to Dirigo, the guys and I have some history together now, having played a lot more gigs. The band is even more sympathetic to my writing and that overall approach, as well as more comfortable playing off each other. Mike, Dave and Ellery are still such heroes of mine – my respect for them as musicians, mentors and men is boundless.

They can play anything – they can swing, they can read, they can play free, all day – so it remains a great challenge for me to really challenge them, to spur their creativity. The way they respond thrills me.”  Gray first met Formanek while a student at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, where the bassist was on the faculty. The drummer wasn’t even driving age in his native Maine when he met Ballou at a jazz camp there. With the trumpeter on the faculty at Towson University near Baltimore, the three eventually developed rapport playing in a local trio. Eskelin, a Baltimore native and another keen influence, joined to complete a searching quartet that has increasingly honed its way with the drummer’s evocative material. “With Dirigo Rataplan II, there is more free improvisation in the music,” Gray explains, “but I also think the melodic fluidity between the composition and
the improvisation is more seamless, with one flowing into the other in a way that I really like. I’m very much writing for Mike, Ellery and Dave –not just for bass, saxophone and trumpet. This music is personal for me, but I want them to do what it is they do, to maximize the pieces in the way that I know they can.”

Formanek’s three-decades-plus career as a bassist-composer has never been more fruitful, with his latest acclaimed ECM release, The Distance, showcasing Ensemble Kolossus, his all-star big band. In addition to his dozen-some albums as a leader, Formanek has performed and recorded with artists from Freddie Hubbard and Joe Henderson to Tim Berne and Mary Halvorson. About working with Gray, Formanek says: “Devin has grown as a composer since that first quartet recording session in 2011, but most important, he has a much more evolved sense of who he is as a musician, and also of who we are in the band as improvisers. These instincts take time to develop, and it has been great to see that process unfold in both his playing and his composing.

“Devin has always been one of those natural drummers, with an organic rhythmic energy that you can just feel,” the bassist adds. “But more than that, he has become a creative, rounded musician. His music has its own personality, which is the goal for any artist. The pieces are free and open with a lot of room for improvisation, but the tunes also have an intrinsic rhythmic and melodic character to them, this color and energy. And with the quartet having played together more now, the sessions for the new album felt even better, with all of us committed to no other agenda than making good music.”

To Gray, what is most vital about Formanek “is not just that his tone and sense of time are so incredible,” the drummer says. “It’s also that he cares so much about doing whatever he can to ensure the quality of the music in front of him. He’s a composer’s improviser, in that way. I feel this total, unspoken trust with him. He’s dealing at such a high level of musicality that you can’t always appreciate the depth of what he’s doing in the moment – it’s not until you listen back to a take that you can truly get everything.”

Eskelin has been one of the tenor saxophone's most original voices over the past three decades, ranging from a long series of Hat Hut albums with his trio featuring accordionist Andrea Parkins and drummer Jim Black to such current projects as his New York Trio with organist Gary Versace and drummer Gerald Cleaver. Eskelin recently released a rare album for tenor sax alone, Solo: Live at Snugs. About the saxophonist, Gray says: “Ellery sets the bar so high for improvisation. The fluidity of his solos, the intense forward motion – that’s what New York musicians have more than anyone else. Playing with someone like him, you have to measure up.”

Ballou has made more than 10 albums as a leader or co-leader over the years, in addition to performing as a soloist for the likes of Gunther Schuller, Andrew Hill, Maria Schneider and John Hollenbeck. “I’ve known Dave’s playing intimately since I was a kid,” Gray says. “I don’t think he has ever sounded better, with that beautiful tone and wide palette of expression. He brings a strong interpretive sense to my music in that he anticipates what I’m looking for, yet via his own sensibility. Working with cats like this, you don’t have to worry about individualism – it’s in everything they do. They bring what are just notes on a page to real life.”

Regarding another mentor, Gray says: “One of the tunes on the album is ‘Feeling for Healing (for Steve Grover),’ dedicated to the drummer-composer who was sick while we were recording and passed not long after. Steve played with the likes of Ballou and George Garzone, but he mostly chose to stay up in Maine and teach, being really supportive to local musicians. Steve was such an inspiration, essentially teaching me what was possible in music.” Reflecting further with this thought in mind, Gray adds: “I don’t set out to make jazz records, per se. I set out to make music, period – to capture the moment, the contemporary feel of the music, hoping that it can reflect in
some small way how we live now and what we all have to deal with as human beings in the world.”

Devin Gray 

The band name Dirigo Rataplan comes from “dirigo,” meaning to direct or lead in Latin, and “rataplan,” which is French for the beating of hooves, or of drums – so it denotes leading from the beat. And Gray is a native of Yarmouth, Maine, where “dirigo” is the state motto. “Being from Maine, I come from the woods, basically,” he explains. “It’s as quiet as can be up there. I started playing the drums as a boy just to fill the air with some noise. That said, the noises you do hear are beautiful, the sounds of nature. So, I was always conscious that if I were going to put my own sounds out there, they had better be good ones – as organic and meaningful and beautiful as you can
make them. That ideal is always inside me when I make music.”

Gray, who was born in 1983, performed and recorded with such elders as saxophonist Gary Thomas while in Baltimore studying at Peabody, as well as in bands of peers, like the fondly remembered Powerlunch. In 2006, the drummer moved to Brooklyn, where he quickly ensconced himself in the scene. In addition to Dirigo Rataplan, Gray leads the quartet Relative Resonance, featuring saxophonist Chris Speed, pianist Kris Davis and bassist Chris Tordini. Reviewing that band’s eponymous Skirl Records album, All About Jazz said: “The vitality of Relative Resonance can’t be denied …  the music here literally sparkles with wit and resourcefulness.” On record, Gray has
also led his Cloudsounds trio (featuring saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and pianist Cory Smythe) and his quartet Fashionable Pop Music (with Tordini, guitarist Jonathan Goldberger and guitarist Ryan Ferreira). He also recently released a hard-grooving digital single fronting his quartet Meta Cache with clarinetist Jeremy Viner, keyboardist Elias Stemeseder and bassist Kim Cass. The drummer has also recorded two albums as one-third of the collective Jagged Spheres, alongside Stemeseder and saxophonist/flutist Anna Webber, and he has also made two vinyl-only releases with keyboardist Liz Kosack and reed player Patrick Breiner as VAX.

As a sideman, Gray has recorded recent albums as part of Nate Wooley’s Argonautica sextet, trumpeter Daniel Levine’s Knuckleball (with pianist Marc Hannaford) and a trio led by pianist Santiago Leibson (alongside bassist Drew Gress). The drummer has played lately with Dave Liebman and Tony Malaby, as well as touring Europe at the head of a trio with Speed and Gress. Gray’s list of recent collaborators includes Gerald Cleaver, Uri Caine, Andrea Parkins, Satoko Fujii, Richard Bonnet, Daniel Guggenheim, Marc Ducret, Frank Gratkowski, Jacob Anderskov, Eve
Risser and Susana Santos Silva. Gray plays Canopus drums and Zildjian cymbals and sticks.

Dirigo Rataplan on Tour, Fall-Winter 2018

Oct. 1, Brunswick, ME: Bowdoin College (clinic/performance)
Oct. 2, Durham, NH: University of New Hampshire (clinic/performance)
Oct. 3, Augusta, ME: University of Maine (performance)
Oct. 4, Portland, ME: SPACE (performance)
Oct. 5, New Haven, CT: Firehouse 12 (performance)
Oct. 6, Baltimore, MD: An die Musik (performance)
Oct. 7, TBA – USA
Dec. 7, TBA – EUROPE
Dec. 8, Geneva, Switzerland: AMR (performance)
Dec. 9, Geneva, Switzerland: Geneva Conservatory of Music (workshop)
Dec. 10, Zurich, Switzerland: Konzerte Villa Irniger (performance)