Derived from separate Latin and French words, the playful name of drummer Devin Gray’s group translates as “leading from the beat.” That he does on his impressive debut album, backed by a stellar lineup including tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, trumpeter Dave Ballou and bassist Michael Formanek. But in the Maine-born, Brooklyn-based Gray’s eloquently controlled sound, the beat is rarely pronounced. His strong suit as a drummer is creating vibrant undercurrents that reflect his strength as a composer, which is devising strategies to keep the music in constant motion.
The quartet has strong Baltimore connections. Gray studied there with Formanek at the Peabody Conservatory. Ballou teaches in the area at Towson University and Eskelin is a Balto native. There’s a distinctive “outlier” quality to Dirigo Rataplan, which makes its mark less through solos by Ballou and Eskelin than their expert navigation of the zone between unison and counterpoint (there’s a touch of harmolodicism in their attack). For their part, Formanek and Gray are as committed to atmosphere as to time and texture.
The album covers a lot of stylistic ground. “Cancel the Cancel” brings out Eskelin’s soulful side, while the wide-open “Otaku” is lifted by Ballou’s sharp, effortlessly expansive playing. The mournful “Prospect Park in the Dark,” dedicated to Charles Ives, is an affecting tonal exercise. “Katahdin” boasts the album’s most muscular harmonies and aggressive, groove-tight solos. As varied as Dirigo Rataplan is, the songs are impressively of a piece, the work of a young artist who knows who he is.