Obbligato opens with a joke: Drummer Tom Rainey and company are in such a hurry to be “Just in Time” (on the Jule Styne classic) that they begin at full speed, seemingly in mid-tune, awash in open-ended improvising. When they finally do get (back) to the melody, they offer a mere snippet of it and stop in their tracks, ready to take apart another tune.
Indeed, this set of reconstituted standards, performed by a group that doesn’t play them often, is full of offbeat moments. The band includes pianist Kris Davis, trumpeter Ralph Alessi, tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and bassist Drew Gress, who have played together so often, in varying combinations, that they can pick up on each other’s signals and alter their course at will.
The album ranges from a staggered-line reading of “Secret Love” that provides plenty of tension but coyly deprives us of the melodic release, to a dreamy version of Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way,” on which Davis floats through the changes. Rainey, a master of textural ploys, introduces “Prelude to a Kiss” with a brilliant unaccompanied solo. With his longtime rhythm partner Gress, he sets the stage melodically for “Long Ago and Far Away,” on which the other players enter one by one.
While the melodies are sometimes minimized, sometimes disguised, they always illuminate the core of the tunes. The contrast between Alessi’s bright, powerfully controlled trumpet and Laubrock’s translucent tenor is especially rewarding (listen to “If I Should Lose You”). Davis, combining lyrical airiness and weight, radiates a world of possibilities with each solo.