Mads la Cour’s Almugi

WhyPlayJazz WP JO44

Devin Gray

Dirigo Rataplan II

Rataplan Records RR001

Two inventive solutions to dealing with the challenges implicit when creating improvised music with the standard two horns-two rhythm combo are aptly displayed on these discs. Both quartets consist of musicians who often work together and each group ranges over nine or 10 tracks. American drummer/composer Devin Gray convened his second Dirigo Rataplan CD after a six year hiatus by re-enlisting players acknowledged as musicians’ musicians: tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, trumpeter Dave Ballou and bassist Michael Formanek. Lesser-known, in North America at least, the equally sophisticated Danish players on Hule have made Almugi their go-to project since 2015, with the compositions of cornetist/flugelhornist Mads la Cour interpreted by bassist Mariusz Praśniewski, drummer Kasper Tom Christiansen and Lars Greve, who plays clarinet, bass clarinet and tenor saxophone). Virtuosity on the American side contrasts with versatility from the Danish one.

As benefits professionals, the American quartet members play with relaxed coordination, operating together as if they were matching Lego pieces, while contrapuntal provocations and multi-faceted expansions are handled with the same aplomb. Urbane swingers with sharp elbows, each player functions properly on the 10 themes composed by Gray, a self-effacing drummer who has worked with the likes of Chris Speed and Dave Liebman. A track such as “Quantum Cryptology” for instance, comes across as a Ballou showcase, with the trumpeter moving from balladic to boisterous, with snarling triplets matched by tick-tock drumming and Arco swing sweep, reaching a crescendo of mellow grooves. Eskelin contributes a vivid oboe-like smear to introduce “Trends of trending” with the sequence propelled by percussion clatter and claps, springy double bass splashes and a near-screeching trumpet emphasis that updates “Salt Peanuts” as it ends the piece. While other tunes encompass motions that move from looping strolls to emphasized backbeats, “The Feeling of Healing (for Steve Grover)” boasts a Birth of the Cool-like chamber orchestration, with the pastel motif expressed in layers that from the top down include heraldic trumpeting, dissonant reed bites, cultivated string thumps and unforced drum beats.

Featuring three interludes entitled “Immer Schön” (always nice) Almugi’s emphasis is easily telegraphed on this brief CD. Plus the quartet’s swing synthesis is expressed in a more illusory manner than what’s heard on Dirigo Rataplan II. Still the four players’ skills prevent the creations from slipping into dreamland, with multi-instrumental ambidexterity defense against the tendency. Greve, for example produces a pinched penny-whistle-like clarinet trill that melds with shaded cornet forms and drum clangs to extend the placid mood on “Terminus”, while his irregularly vibrated tenor saxophone split tone and growls on “Støjland Møgland” contrast with la Cour’s high-pitched fluttery smears. The two reach a rapprochement at the end following displays of staccato reed screeds and aviary cornet breaks backed by timed drum beats. Most notably, “Gammelton” defines its narrative with fragments of Bop and Cool arrangements, propelled by drum pops and a walking bass line, even as the horns references are post-Free Jazz, with the cornetist moving up the scale with high-pitched broken note peeps and irregularly vibrated, almost off-key flutters from the clarinetist. Even the mid-program “Immer Schön #2” is enlivened with a viscous interface, during which harmonized cornet plunger washes and fractured tones from the clarinetist propel multiple notes at the same time from each horn.

Both quartets have solved the standard set up conundrum in notable fashion and should continue their explorations. Next time out though, Almugi should try to record fewer, longer tunes, while the Gray quartet should convene more frequently than every six years.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Dirigo: 1. Congruently 2. Rollin’ Thru Town 3. Trends of trending 4. Texicate 5. The Wire 6. Quantum Cryptology 7. What We Learn from Cities 8. The Feeling of Healing (for Steve Grover) 9. Intrepid Travelers 10. Micro Dosage

Personnel: Dirigo: Dave Ballou (trumpet); Ellery Eskelin (tenor saxophone); Michael Formanek (bass) and Devin Gray (drums)

Track Listing: Hule: 1. Immer Schön #1 2. Terminus 3. Støjland Møgland 4. Hule 5. Immer Schön #2 6. Gammelton 7. Impro 8. Bølgebop, Bølgebop 9. Immer Schön #3

Personnel: Hule: Mads la Cour (cornet, flugelhorn); Lars Greve (clarinet, bass clarinet, tenor saxophone); Mariusz Praśniewski (bass) and Kasper Tom Christiansen (drums)