By Gregg Daniel Miller
The title Spots on Stripes could refer to notations on sheet music. It might also refer to this record's mood: a cross between a tiger and a zebra, meat-eater and herbivore, hunter and grazer, noble beast and gentle creature of the wild. Spots on Stripes records a meeting of very accomplished, self-assured players who listen, who don't try to dazzle, but rather find tasteful and always lively ways to compliment and engage each other. The tunes assembled each explore odd, sometimes impenetrable time signatures, and the band plays effortlessly, beautifully, searchingly in unexpected ways, feeling loose despite the rigor.
The leader, Benoît Delbecq (piano) plays with gentle precision. John Hébert (double bass) is indefatigable, placing each note, not too many, just so, with integrity. Gerald Cleaver (percussion) is a subtle master, doing everything and nothing at all in just the way his partners need, neither time-keeper nor mere accessorizer-in-chief, he supplies energetics, off-rhythm fills, and respite from same. These 3 have recorded together earlier Spiritual Lover (2009) and Floodstage (2014). Spiritual Lover is thoughtful, a little spooky, patient leaning to reticent, and lovely. Floodstage, too, with some electronic synth thrown in as color. This new one still has Delbecq playing a subtle role, but the arrangements are somehow more mature, with Mark Turner's tenor saxophone playing the role of outlier. It's not a sax record, though. Turner plays simple lines, and is never really featured except maybe where the tonality of a horn over a rhythm section grabs the ear (e.g. on Dripping Stones) but, if you focus on the intersection of the piano/bass/drums, then the sax in its correct place simply ornaments their interaction. This is a rhythm section record, exploring time and mood.
The first, eponymous track (Spots on Stripes) is lively and spacious, the bass provides the energy. When Hébert gets assertive, the whole thing really swings. For having no discernable time signature, all the players are on the same page at all times. On the second track (Broken World) (as with the first), the bassist wins the day with his expressive solo. The third track (Rosemary K) is like a deformed lullaby. The musical line communicates a beseeching, cloying want, repeated until it dissolves, and then at it again. The song deploys a time signature I can't quite manage, and the players in unison trace the lilting expression. A strange little nothing.
Apropos of its title, the fourth track (The Loop of Chicago) opens with piano clusters which mimic a pulsing reminiscent of the trains overhead on Chicago's elevated tracks (down by South Wabash Street, maybe). Loop of Chicago is a bit messier and more aggressive (by design) then the other tunes, but the tonality is never stretched beyond the center. It remains restrained, and well within the ear's comfort zone. The tune evokes a bustling street scene of movie-style businessmen in black and white rushing about in their hats and coats, though it closes out with a lonely wistfulness.
Track 5 (Disparition du Si): A sweet and patient pairing what sounds like a buzzy thumb piano (or maybe just prepared piano or synth) interweaves sonic plucking with the standard piano, creating a sound fabric like knotted crochet: off-balance and made mostly of holes.
On track six (Dawn Sounds), an African-sounding bustling foundation opens: that buzzy thumb piano, and then drums and bass register together a lovely, joyful poly-rhythmic energyfest over which the sax aimlessly solos. Then Delbecq on piano proper enters, knowing what he's about. Fun listening!
Track 7 (Old Vinyl) is built around some slow-mo bass hits - bummmmp, bahm; bummmp, bahm. High cool factor, and then the bass drops out leaving all air and love, and then comes right back in to show us what is missing: the ground. And then the bass starts to walk. Nice tune.
Track 8 (Springs). For the opening: Imagine an overgrown garden hitting a sudden accelerator button. It's like that, everything sprouting at once. Then the sax enters and our gardeners clear a path, and Turner winds around, sometimes spinning in place, sometimes examining or else exploring the foliage. The bass and drums get all the fun, laying down the tricky fundamentals and then mixing it up as they like over the already implied regularity. Again, this is very much a rhythm section record. Even when the sax makes his 16th note runs, he can't explode out of the intricate, binding undergrowth. They are the show.
Track 9. Dripping Stones meanders a bit. It is roughly a ballad, though loose and without a care. Like track 5 especially, this tune, too, creates an atmosphere with notes and space. The sax, bass and piano wander around in there, separately, together, and then withdraw. The sax sings a bit; the piano and bass mark out the chordal boundaries.
The closing piece, De Staël, is a deconstructed blues with some pregnant hesitation built into the time. Of all the tunes, the sax feels in-the-pocket on this one, despite the fact that the pocket is stitched unevenly.
Overall, this is a very imaginative, expressive record, very easy to listen to, very non-confrontational, but the closer your ear gets to listening how the parts manage to work together, the more interesting it gets.