By Joris De Roy
Rediscovering the tradition
January saw the release of Tom Rainey’s Obbligato quintet’s eponymous first CD, bringing together Rainey as a leader, surrounded by his (some older and some more recent) stablemates Ralph Alessi, Ingrid Laubrock, Kris Davis and Drew Gress. For those who have kept up with these players’ recent work, this line-up will sound familiar, as it is actually the same as the LARK Quartet (also on Intakt records), expanded by Drew Gress on bass. Appearances, however, can be deceptive, which becomes apparent from the very start.
For a start, this CD’s repertoire consists of 10 standards, most of them taken from the Great American Songbook, with a Monk and a Brubeck composition thrown in for good measure. So, no original compositions or improvisations here, in contrast to Rainey’s (or LARK’s) output so far. The playing as well is pretty different from what one might expect from this group of players.
Just in Time, the brief opening track is as be-boppish as one can get these days (the CD was recorded in 2013). Add some crackle and groove hiss, imagine you’re listening to an LP, and you could be back in the late fifties, early sixties, listening to the first classic Miles Davis quintet. It is not until after a while that the simple truth kicks in : this band is, indeed, a perfect copy of those classic quintet line-ups. The horn section runs up and down over a steady basso continuo line, so typical for the age.
Brubeck’s In your own Sweet Way sounds a lot more mellow – and so do the next two tracks -but allows more scope for subtle interplay. Overall the playing is rather reserved and restrained, with every note delivered carefully and neatly; there’s nothing that reminds one of the fact that the majority of the players typically express themselves in free mode. No shrieking horns, no clashing of cymbals or clattering chord work on the piano are to be heard on this recording. It is only after repeated listening that the restraint opens up and allows us a glimpse at the different layers, so much so that one begins to hear more instruments in the mix than just the five of the basic quintet. Or is this my imagination running wild?
In Secret Love, the first cracks appear in the quintet’s persona and it becomes clear this is not just a bunch of young(ish) cats who are trying to show they can play in the classic mode as well as they play free improve. Underneath the surface there are occasional slips into freer expression, with unexpected drum rolls, some definitely no longer tradition bass runs, and non-classic bursts from the horn section. Still the playing remains tight and controlled. The music grows more free and meditative after the drum solo that opens Prelude to a Kiss, so much so that one really has to listen to recognize the original melody. As the record goes on, you realize how the standards’ melodies are skeletons slowly hollowed out from the inside and given new shape.
The CD ends where it started, with another take on Styne’s Just in Time, and back to be-bop mode. What we’ve gone through is a 60-year journey and back in just over 50 minutes, with some hints at what straightforward be-bop has (or could have) grown into. The playing on this CD is impeccable throughout, and the delivery and interplay are unquestionably top-notch. Whether this is music you’ll often listen to, however, is a different question altogether, as it is a far remove from these players’ usual context. If it were not for the individual’s former output, this record would probably not qualify for the label free jazz. Definitely worth a listen, and certainly interesting if you want to hear these players in a different setting, but Obbligato sounds just a little too traditional to keep me on my toes after two or three listenings.