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Sunday, January 23, 2022

Devin Gray - Melt all the Guns / Cloud Sound Trio / Universal Dwellings

By Paul Acquaro

Percussionist and composer Devin Gray released several recordings during the COVID time warp. Today we take at look at a few of these releases which range from adventurous modern jazz to daring avant-garde explorations.

Devin Gray, Ralph Alessi, Angelica Sanchez  - Melt all the Guns (Rataplan, 2021) ****½

This album struck a chord from the first time I took a listen to it, admittedly a while ago now, back in early summer '21. Ralph Alessi's trumpet is front and center on this short recording (in total about 18 minutes) and in conjunction with Angelica Sanchez's piano playing and Gray's drumming, they have a full and sensuousness sound that is both powerful and delicate. The opening tune, 'Think About It' comes out of the gate with a somewhat awkward gait that lurches with purpose as the trio engages in a syncopated, rhythmic melody. Over a generous pulse, Alessi begins with a slightly fractured solo, bringing it to a cohesive swirl of tones that the trio takes back out with a purposeful stride. 'Jet Lag Party' begins more on the legato side, with both Alessi and Sanchez developing the theme over Gray's dynamic and precise drum work. The short, gripping tune is followed by 'Micro Waves,' which features a complex interchange of lines between the trumpet and piano and contrasting rhythmic patterns between the piano and drums. The title track begins with a bit of trumpet fanfare and baleful chords from the piano before moving into a groove and then to a trifurcated passage, each musician pursuing their own path, before finally coming to musical agreement in the final minute.

An argument could be made that the album could have been named after the closing track, 'Protect our Environment,' which plays out as an ECM worthy ballad. In it, Sanchez offer a soft, but firm, underlying harmonic bed for Alessi's gripping, and at times, lightly dissonant melody. Overall, along with Gray's lightly urgent percussion, the track ends the recording with a real sentimental yearning. Gray's notes about the album however mentions the impetus for the title, in that he was moved by the seemingly endless amount of gun violence in the U.S. and needed to make some sort of statement about. Both messages ring strongly and clearly, as does the music on this short but powerful album.

Devin Gray, Ingrid Laubrock, Cory Smythe - Cloudsounds (Rataplan, 2021) ****

Cloudsounds finds Gray working with his Cloud Sounds Trio: pianist Corey Smythe and saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock. The music, compared to Melt All the Guns, is more nervous and edgier. In the opening tracks, Laubrock  plays staccato phrases that stack up against Smythe's sparse approach to keyboard. Gray seems to lean in a little more, the pulse is heavier, helping to lead the trio towards dense and tense moments. The track 'Computers. Haze.' is a good example, it begins with a twitchy notes from the piano and sax, and a similarly clattery response from the drums. However, in short order, the somewhat disconnected parts come together with fervor. Laubrock's notes can be seen springing off Smythe's arpeggiated chords and Gray lays claim to a good deal of sonic territory. Two tracks later, 'Darmstadt Days' takes a different approach. Now, Gray is front and center, and between his prominent bass drum hits - or maybe it's floor tom-toms, I don't really know - Laubrock plays a unwinding melody and Smythe blows a cloud of magical dust into the space. This track, the longest on the EP at 6 minutes, moves into an exploratory section that eventually leads back to a powerful syncopated climax. The recordings ends with 'Who's Uniting Who?', a shorter track that begins with chimes, saxophone key clatter, and a pluck of a string inside the piano, the textures give way to a quizzical melodies. A short recording that simply demands repeat play.

Devin Gray, Jessica Pavone, Wendy Eisenberg - Universal Dwellings (Rataplan, 2021) ****

Drums, violin, guitar - more than just a sonic shift away from the piano trio mold of the previous two recordings, there is also shift to more textural playing than the lyricalness of Melt All the Guns or taught melodic clumps of Cloudsounds. The first track, 'Death by Audio,' simply flies by in less than a minute. Alien chatter from Wendy Eisenberg's guitar surrounds the buzzing of Jessica Pavone's violin, while Gray is adds choice clatter. 'System Relevant' - a term bandied about at the start of the pandemic - starts off with Eisenberg bouncing around the fretboard and Pavone striking rhythmically at her strings as Gray builds the momentum. 'Send Healing' is built around a drone, and in fact, the drums seem to take on the role of the melodic instrument, and on 'Loosies', the guitar resumes a somewhat more expected role, playing sweeping patterns and lines that quickly crash into themselves.

Universal Dwellings is a document of three venturesome players, and hopefully a harbinger of future collaborations. It may be tricky tracking down a copy, at the moment it seems that the short CD is limitedly available through Downtown Music Gallery and Squidco, or you can keep an eye on Gray's Bandcamp site.