Armen Donelian: Leapfrog

The title of Armen Donelian’s new recording invites some guesswork until you flip the CD jacket and find a short note from the veteran pianist-composer: “Leapfrog is a game with no winners or losers. Everyone is in it for the fun. I like this approach to life, and to music.”

As do, apparently, his session mates: saxophonist Marc Mommaas, guitarist Mike Moreno, bassist Dean Johnson and drummer Tyshawn Sorey. Yet there’s nothing particularly lighthearted about this eight-track collection of mostly Donelian compositions. As the opening cut, “Rage,” vibrantly attests, the “fun” derives from fresh and fully integrated collaborations more than anything else. “Rage” is an intense opener, a spiraling theme that becomes tauter with each chorus, dramatically charged by Mommaas’ keening sax, Moreno’s streaming single-note lines and the rhythm section’s densely percussive attack. Drummer Sorey, however, can turn on a dime, which accounts for much of the album’s appeal.

Donelian’s writing is harmonically intriguing throughout, sometimes recalling Thelonious Monk’s colors and cadences (“Smoke”), sometimes evoking the cinematic and mysterious (“Mexico”), sometimes conjuring something more personal and soulful (“The Poet”). The disparate moods, with their subtle or pronounced shifts in tone and texture, seem tailor-made for the quintet, so much so that Donelian is never the focus for very long. In fact, the album’s most absorbing performances say more about the ensemble’s depth than the pianist’s leadership. But give Donelian his due. The prolific composer has come up with yet another series of pieces that clearly inspire and challenge the quintet. Fun, indeed.