Notes and Editorial Reviews
IN THE NOW
John Yao Qnt
INNOVA 823 (55:23)
Here’s an innovative and interesting album of modern modal jazz played by a quintet led by Asian-American trombonist John Yao. Born in 1977 outside Chicago, Yao originally studied piano but switched to trombone at age 11. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Indiana University (where he resumed piano playing, which later became important to his compositional style) and a master’s in jazz performance from Queen’s College. At the latter institution, he was strongly influenced by Luis Bonilla and
Michael Mossman. After Yao moved to New York in 2005, he came up quickly through the jazz world, performing at Birdland and the Village Vanguard, later at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center. He has since toured internationally, is a member of Chino Nuñez and Friends, which is described as New York’s hottest salsa band, and has also played with Arturo O’Farrill, Paquito D’Rivera, Eddie Palmieri, Danilo Perez, Kurt Elling, Buddy DeFranco, the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, Lou Rawls, the Brooklyn Big Band, the Josh Shneider Orchestra, and Bright Eyes.
The music presented here is very much in the Ornette Coleman-Heiner Stadler style. Very complex and changing rhythms underpin a series of solos that, apparently unrelated, impress the listener as separate commentaries on the music rather than solos that feed off one another. Jon Irabagon, on soprano and alto saxophone, is closer stylistically to Eric Dolphy than to Coleman or Coltrane. Although Yao’s original tunes have their own particular motifs, the connection to Coleman is consistently strong, the second number,
sounding much like Coleman’s
Yao’s playing style owes much to Jimmy Knepper and Frank Rosolino. Yao credits Miles Davis, Coltrane, Rosolino, Bob Brookmeyer and Gil Evans among his many influences.
I am consistently impressed by the tightness of this band and its communicative style of expression. The constant juxtaposition of long modal lines with fast-moving breaks and improvisations creates a nice tension. One pleasant surprise is the fifth number,
Not Even Close,
which is closer to pure bop-progressive swing style than the Coltrane-Coleman style evinced in the earlier tracks. On this track, Yao’s indebtedness to Rosolino is strongly evident. Also on this track, one finally hears an extended solo from pianist Randy Ingram. His use of sparse chords in the left hand and extended single-note explorations in the right show strong traces of Bud Powell or early Bill Evans (who was in turn also influenced by Powell). Bassist Leon Boykins also has a solo on this track, in walking style, cleanly executed if rather conventional compared to his much more imaginative underpinning on the other tracks.
is another swinger in modern style, but here the rhythmic pattern is much more fragmented.
is a ballad, very much in the style of the Miles Davis band when he had Wayne Shorter on saxophone. On this track, too, Ingram plays an absolutely gorgeous piano solo, delicately tracing lines and leading suavely back into the ensemble (Yao playing trombone in unison with Irabagon’s alto sax), after which the two horns carry on an intriguing musical dialog while Ingram continues to weave an intricate counterpoint between the musical cracks. This is a magnificent performance, almost hypnotic in its effect on the listener.
The concluding track,
begins in a slow tempo but burns throughout with a smoldering intensity. A quirky melody played by the alto is commented upon with trombone counterpoint from Yao, who then takes off on a lyrical yet inventive solo. Starting at about the five-and-a-half-minute mark, the tempo slowly increases (an old Mingus trick), and the polyphony of alto and trombone becomes more and more complex and ever more remote (especially in Irbagon’s playing) from the tonal center, sometimes buzzing or spitting into his mouthpiece. The piece eventually fades out (the only fade-out on the album), which I know is part and parcel of extended-play jazz performances since the 1950s, but I’ve always found that such endings are a little bit of a cop-out; it indicates that the musicians couldn’t think of a way to resolve it. (When was the last time you heard a
piece fade out?)
My sole complaint of this CD is that there are no liner notes whatsoever, which is unfair to listeners who happen not to know who Yao or his quintet members are. I had to go to the artist’s Facebook page to find the information given in the first paragraph. On the inside flap of the CD packaging (a fold-over cardboard arrangement rather than a plastic jewel box), there’s a photo of the band, but except for Yao (who also gets a solo photo) I have no idea who’s who in that picture as no one is holding an instrument. Overall, however, this is an excellent album.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
Works on This Recording
Divisions by John Yao
John Yao Quintet
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