John Yao is Off-Kilter

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YAO: Below the High Rise. Labyrinth. Interlude No. 1. Quietly. Crosstalk. Unfiltered. The Morphing Line. Interlude No. 2. Off-Kilter / Triceratops: John Yao, tb; Billy Drewes, s-sax/a-sax; Jon Rabagon, t-sax/soprillo-sax; Robert Sabin, bs; Mark Ferber, dm / See Tao Recordings (no number)

I had occasion to review a CD by John Yao’s little band, Triceratops, in August 2019 and gave it a rave review. This one is also extremely interesting, particularly since Yao writes piece in extremely complex rhythms which he and his bandmates seem to have no problem improvising on.

This is music that follows a thorny path. Even the melodic lines are complex, and in the opening piece, Below the High Rise, his two saxophonists engage in an a cappella duo-improvisation, playing against one another rhythmically, that is extremely complex. One thing I noticed in this performance was how precisely Mark Ferber plays the drums despite the rhythmic hurdles of this music; how on earth these musicians can absorb these pieces and then play extempore improvisations on them baffles me. The average jazz musician, even some “free jazz” musicians, would get hopelessly lost in these works. Chalk it up to their being together so long that they’re on each others’ wavelengths.

And if you think the first piece was complex, wait until you hear Labyrinth with its doubly complicated opening section…although, after we’ve passed that, it settles down into a surprisingly swinging section in a straight 4 (though not for long). After a pause, we enter another rhythmically complex canon in which Yao joins the saxes although it, too, somehow settles into a straight four for Billy Drewes’ alto solo. After a pause, we again move into a straight 4, albeit with some very complex playing by Ferber against bassist Robert Sabin’s steady beat. Yao then solos, revealing an angular approach all his own.

But every track has its own surprises and rewards. Interlude No. 1 opens with a roiling drum solo, yet when the horns enter they are playing soft chords together before the beat suddenly relaxes. Not surprisingly considering its title, Quietly provides a moment of respite from all the hectic movement and tempi of the preceding pieces. (This one could even me played on a jazz radio station and not unduly upset the masses, despite some quite complex rhythm once we get further into the piece.) After an a cappella trombone intro, Crosstalk alternates between several bars in complex rhythm and those in 4, with breaks that add beats to the bar. As I said earlier, it’s a miracle that Yao’s musicians can get into these pieces in such an easy, familiar manner.

Trying to give technical descriptions of all of Yao’s compositions, however, is a bit like trying to give an exact description of ice crystals as they fall during an ice storm. No two are exactly alike, they’re all different, yet the exact formations are all different; and since music, unlike ice crystals, falls much slower, one can indeed hear each change but trying to put them into a box and define them structurally proves futile. Better to lust listen to what the musicians do here and allow your mind to absorb everything in its place. The Morphing Line is one such piece, where relistening several times to different aspects of the performance will give you a better handle on what’s happening here—and it doesn’t help that this, too, is a multi-section piece with contrasting themes and rhythms separated by a pause. Not too surprisingly, the title track, though indeed complex, is not much more so than most of the pieces in this set.

From start to finish, this music is not merely complex but fascinating and well worth your mental as well as your financial investment. If you appreciate really good, complex modern jazz, this CD is for you!

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz

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