Year of the Snake

This review appears in the October 2012 issue of The New York City Jazz Record.

Year of the Snake (ECM)

By David R. Adler

From its eponymous Savoy debut in 2004 to its ECM breakthrough Sky & Country in 2009, the collaborative trio Fly has never lacked for spontaneity, compositional depth and fully rounded musicianship. But with Year of the Snake, the band’s sophomore outing for ECM, tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard have risen to a new level. They bring abstraction and mystery but also mathematical precision to the date, and each composer has at least one “wow” moment — a creative leap that signifies not only a personal best, but also a gain for music in general.

The trio opens with Turner’s moody contrapuntal theme “The Western Lands I,” and this becomes the basis for collectively composed sketches interspersed throughout the program. The variations (II through V) range from unsettled and playful to meditative and chamber-like; the final one sounds something like a harbor at night, far-off and remote. Sonic experimentation and extended techniques are not Fly’s usual bag, but the approach works, balancing out the more rigorously planned material. The immaculate ECM sound does wonders for Ballard’s percussion especially.

More than ever, Fly succeeds in seeming huge and harmonically full — far more than expected from a trio without a chordal instrument. Turner’s ambitious entries are “Festival Tune” and “Year of the Snake,” both fast and elliptical, and “Brothersister,” a sparse waltz with startling metric crosscurrents in its opening and closing moments. Ballard’s “Diorite” and “Benj” are breakthrough achievements, with forbiddingly complex rhythmic passages that demand superb execution but also a sense of fluidity and breath. Grenadier brings in just one piece, “Kingston,” but it is the longest track and arguably the album’s top highlight. The explosive outro, with its fast and repeating double-stop figure for arco bass, is unlike anything on an acoustic jazz record in recent memory.

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