Dave Ballou: Rothko

Ever look at a modern painting and wonder whether it’s hanging upside down, or whether righting it would make any difference in your perception of it? That was my initial aural reaction to Rothko (SteepleChase), Dave Ballou’s fifth release for that label, and one of his most adventurous. Quoting his own liner notes, Ballou’s intentions are “to present material in ways that might thwart expectations.” Thwarted they were. The whole first cut is an extended trumpet rumination sans rhythm. I heard hints of Johnny Mandel’s theme from M*A*S*H, but it wasn’t until 2:20 into the track that a quote from “The Nearness of You” identified the tune. His “outside” style is akin to looking at a building through a rain-soaked windshield: fragmented, cubistic, artful deconstructions, often devoid of bar lines, less often atonal, but always well executed. With pianist George Colligan, bassist Cameron Brown and drummer Mike Sarin going along for the free ride, “Stella by Starlight” defies identification beyond the head; “Rothko” is as abstract as the painter it’s named for; you can actually dance to, even hum “I Should Care.” Ballou’s tone is beautifully reverent on Don Cherry’s “Art Deco,” and he shows his ability to swing straightahead on Miles Davis’ “Solar.” But “Herb” sounds like an annoying fly got loose in the studio. Call the swat team.