Dirigo Rataplan, the new album from drummer Devin Gray, sounds like it’s the product of a seasoned veteran as opposed to what one might expect to hear on a debut album from someone not yet in his 30s. Surrounding himself with a killer band (Michael Formanek on bass, Dave Ballou on trumpet, and Ellery Eskelin on tenor), Gray has delivered an exceptional album that is mature, focused and features stellar playing and writing throughout. It’s not only a strong contender for best debut album of the year, but it’s also one of the best recordings I’ve heard thus-far in 2012.
As a drummer, Gray is simultaneously tight and loose: tight in that regardless of whether he is sitting in the pocket, playing out of time or splashing color, everything is controlled and deliberate; loose in that he always sounds relaxed, easy and natural – it’s as if he’s not even working.
Gray wrote all of the album’s eight tunes, which all unfold in a highly organic fashion. The group’s chemistry is so great, and the music is so unforced, that it’s hard to tell whether the tempo, texture, time or groove changes are written or negotiated on the fly. The pieces all share the same aesthetic, yet are often quite varied: “Talking With Hands” has a light, pseudo-funk groove that back somewhat jabbing and pointilistic front line head figures. “Thickets” begins as a dark ballad (for sake of a better word) that has many long held sustained notes before Eskelin begins to cry over Formanek’s arco drone. Ballou offers several fleeting and darting figures over Gray’s busy drums, and Eskelin enters and engages in contrapuntal lines with Ballou before giving way to Formanek and the last statement of the tune.
Eskelin, who has been consistently churning out his own excellent albums for well over a decade, and Ballou are ideal front line partners, and the two often dart and dive between, around, and through each others lines, especially on the first half of “Cancel the Cancel.” Formanek, who taught Gray at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, has an enormous bass sound and shows his excellent flexibility at shifting between time keeping, soloing, or adding countermelodies, colors and textures. He and Gray are locked in throughout.
Mark it up – Dirigo Rataplan is an album to listen to, and Gray is a drummer and composer to keep on the lookout for.