Jeff Ballard / Fly / Larry Grenadier / Mark Turner

Year of the Snake

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Year of the Snake is the second pianoless saxophone trio set issued by ECM in 2012. The first, Andy Sheppard's excellent Trio Libero, was released in January. While Sheppard's album was deeply focused on lyricism and melodic improvisation, Fly take a varied approach to the ideas and preconceptions of the saxophone trio itself. All three members -- tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, drummer Jeff Ballard, and bassist Larry Grenadier -- contribute pieces that concentrate on what's possible for the group rather than individual showcases for composition. Fly's members' resum├ęs have compelling intersection points from Brad Mehldau to Kurt Rosenwinkel, from Enrico Rava to Paul Motian to Pat Metheny, and all of that experience -- as well as that gained from the many other leaders these players have worked with -- is brought into the group consciousness. The hourlong, 12-track set kicks off with Turner's brief tone poem "The Western Lands I." Clocking in at two and a half minutes, it's a rather darkly sketched modern classical piece with shimmering percussion and lovely arco work by Grenadier. It is used as a catalyst for improvisation on four more parts woven throughout the disc. Together they create a guidepost that balances the group's freer concerns and more formal rhythmic and harmonic endeavors. Turner's "Festival Tune," which immediately follows, reveals the fullness of their approach, with Fly sounding bigger, fuller, as they invest in and articulate a fluid but recognizable groove. Grenadier's "Kingston" commences with a sparse, abstract sketch for three of its ten minutes. It's all shimmering call and response, soft angles and spaces, until Ballard kicks it up with breaks and snare, establishing something approaching funk at the four-minute mark. Then the rhythm section fully engages with Turner, who uses the skeletal melody to explore around the propulsive logic. "Benj," by Ballard, shifts time-signature gears numerous times in just over five minutes, with illustrative solo work by Grenadier and wonderful altissimo by Turner without a fixed harmonic construction. The title cut, by Turner, offers a gorgeous earful of how fluid and expansive Fly's "everything is context" sonic universe is, with labyrinthine corners and hidden spaces for harmony and rhythm to assert themselves but never compete for dominance. Of Fly's three recordings to date, Year of the Snake is the most unusual and beguiling; it unhinges preconceived notions about the saxophone trio with complete freedom minus the chaos of disorder.

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