Hey, John Yao: How We Do?


WP 2019 - 2HOW WE DO / YAO: Three Parts as One. Triceratops Blues. How We Do. Golden Hour. Doin’ the Thing. Circular Path. Two Sides. IRABAGON: Tea for T / John Yao Quintet: Yao, tb; Billy Drewes, s-sax/a-sax; Jon Irabagon, t-sax; Peter Brendler, bs; Mark Ferber, dm / See Tao Recordings (no number)

John Yao, whose work I have admired previously, presents us here with a new CD due out on October 18 of this year. In it, he uses two sax players in addition to his own trombone to create some interesting textures and compositions.

According to the publicity sheet accompanying this release, Yao’s intent was similar to that of Duke Ellington’s small groups, which played like a mini-orchestra rather than in the traditional jam session style of intro, theme, string of solos. “The idea is to have different parts coming together into one,” Yao says. “That was the concept that was in play as I was thinking about these amazing players and how to bring them together into an organic combination.”

The music, though modern, is more in the tradition of late-bop groups of the late 1950s/early ‘60s, mixed with a feeling of cool jazz. Billy Drewes’ alto playing shows the influence of outside players of the 1960s. Yao’s compositions are essentially simple in concept: no complex melodic lines and fairly simple, modal changes à la Miles Davis, though his scoring for the three horns—sometimes in unison, sometimes in harmony, occasionally in polyphony—provides a more “orchestral” sound than Davis’ groups did. Jon Irabagon, on tenor sax, also goes “outside” occasionally but for the most part plays very good, musically coherent solos that fit the framework of the compositions well. As good as Mark Ferber is on drums, it is really bassist Mark Ferber who drives this band with a light but highly propulsive beat. Yao himself doesn’t enter the picture on Three Parts as One until the 5:28 mark, giving the listener time to hear and appreciate his saxists first. Yao’s playing, as always, is tasteful and essentially melodic, with a warm, burry tone reminiscent of Jimmy Knepper.

Triceratops Blues is a medium-slow 6/8 piece with a more interesting theme played in unison by the three horns. One thing that made me smile was Yao’s comment that ““In any arranging class you’ll learn that three horns is the hardest combination to work with in achieving a full sound. If you just had one more voice you can fill out the harmony more clearly, but with three you’re constantly boxed into corners.” Well, this is why you work things out for yourself and don’t listen to nudniks in arranging classes, John. What “arranging classes” did Duke Ellington attend? Or John Kirby? Or Eddie Sauter? Or George Russell…all three of whom (among others of their time) creates miracles with “just” three horns? Remember Mood Indigo? Just three horns, yet it created a hypnotic effect and an entirely new way of hearing those instruments as a combination. Also remember the John Kirby Sextet? They sounded pretty full using just three horns, two of them bright ones (trumpet and clarinet). Still, I liked this piece despite the fact that Yao is the only soloist. It’s an ensemble effort, and one that hangs together very well.

How We Do opens in suspended time with just a little horn fanfare, cymbal washes and interesting bass breaks. After a fast section that one thinks is going to be the theme, the tempo relaxes again, a different tune is heard, and the band stops dead twice, apparently trying to find its rhythm. I found it very humorous, as if it was simulating a band that couldn’t get itself together. Finally, at 2:21, they just start playing a sort of funky R&B tune, and this seems to be the track they’ve decided to run on. Despite little spot solos by Drewes (on soprano), Irabagon and Yao, this is essentially an ensemble concept, although the three horns engage in nice, fairly extended three-way chase choruses which fill out most of the second half.

The Golden Hour also starts out with a 6/8 feel and another simple and elusive melody. You know, sometimes I wonder if modern jazz composers actually know who to write real melodic lines anymore. Even Monk’s and Mingus’ melodies were more memorable than many of these modern pieces. But this one is apparently just a mean of introduction for a brief three-way conversation between the horns before we get our string of solos. From a structural standpoint, then, this one was something of a disappointment for me. It really never started and, being stuck in one chord for a long time, it didn’t go anywhere, though the leader’s solo was the most interesting part of the performance.

Doin’ the Thing is a relatively catchy tune (not fully formed as such, but it does have a hook) in medium swing tempo with a bouncy rhythm in the bass. Upon the arrival of Irabagon’s tenor, however, we suddenly get some bars in double time which add interest to the proceedings. Once again, it is Yao’s trombone that contributes to the musical structure. In the later section, Yao creates an interesting effect with a melodic line that rises and descends in half-steps, much like a Monk piece.

Circular Path opens very slowly, mostly with just Yao’s trombone playing over Brendler’s bowed bass. After cymbal washes come in, we move to Drewes playing soprano over plucked bass, into which Yao re-enters playing harmony. Following this, Brendler doubles the underlying tempo while Yao improvises lines above him within the original pace. Following a pause, we get Irabagon playing the theme on tenor while Drewes complements him with some nice moving figures before the three horns coalesce for the finale. A really nice track.

In Two Sides, we begin with an old-fashioned swinger, the theme played in unison by the horns. Yao emerges almost immediately with a solo in which the tempo becomes more ambiguous (it sounds like 5/4 to me) but then swings back to the bouncy 4. In Yao’s later solo, Brendler’s bass carries on a subtle conversation with him. Drewes goes outside for his alto solo, followed by a quirky duo with Irabagon, later with Yao playing opposing figures underneath. What a great track this is!

Irabagon’s Tea for T also sounds like an old swinger, this time with the tenor playing quite high in its range and Drewes complementing him on soprano. Yao joins them for a spirited three-way conversation, then the trio begins sliding downward chromatically for a few bars before picking themselves up and starting all over again. Brendler plays a terrific solo, followed by a three-way polyphonic passage by the horns. As Fats Waller once said, “I’m feeling very fugal this morning!” The band then suddenly doubles the tempo for a wild ride-out.

What a fine album, for the most part, with some interesting arranged passages and equally interesting solos!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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One thought on “Hey, John Yao: How We Do?

  1. John Yao says:

    Hi Lyne,

    Thank you so much for your review of my album “How We Do”. I really enjoyed reading your work and greatly appreciate you taking the time to listen and write about the album.

    Best regards,



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