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Billy Drummond & Freedom of Ideas: Valse Sinistre (Cellar)

A review of the drummer's first album with his postbop quartet

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Billy Drummond & Freedom of Ideas: Valse Sinistre (Cellar)
The cover of Valse Sinistre by Billy Drummond & Freedom of Ideas

Valse Sinistre is so good that it almost feels irresponsible. Drummer Billy Drummond and his postbop quartet (saxophonist Dayna Stephens, pianist Micah Thomas, and bassist Dezron Douglas) are not only firing on all cylinders, but venturing into such daredevilry that you want to shout, “Are you guys insured?”

This is only slight hyperbole. Starting on Jackie McLean’s “Little Melonae,” the band is already dancing on a tightrope with their warp-speed run through the complex composition. But then, Thomas charges out with an astonishing solo that goes everywhere at once—Drummond demonstrates his command simply by keeping pace. That’s just the opening salvo. The title track showcases another fine Thomas solo, but this one is overshadowed by a dark improvisation from Stephens’ soprano. It’s an instrument we often think of as letting a bit of light into the proceedings; not this time.

In fact, there’s an air of grim determination that suffuses all of Valse Sinistre. The standard “Laura” here sounds like the soundtrack to Doomsday, thanks to the funereal pace and Drummond’s careful brushwork. Frank Kimbrough’s “Clara’s Room” offers a glimmer of sweetness, but the gradually intensifying solos by Thomas, Stephens, and—crucially—Douglas feel like reactions against that sweetness.

What’s the correlation? Is the grimness a cause or effect of the band’s electricity? It certainly does nothing to diminish it. As good as the solos are, the interactions positively stupefy. On “Frankenstein,” as Stephens and then Thomas turn improvised cartwheels, Drummond and Douglas show an uncanny ability to simultaneously meander and stay tight-knit. Stephens and Thomas’ fills against Drummond’s workout on the closing “Lawra” fit so perfectly that one wonders if they were written (though Drummond is so clearly improvising that they couldn’t be). How could such risky maneuvers turn out so flawless? Valse Sinistre dares us to wonder.

Learn more about Valse Sinistre on Amazon and Apple Music.

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Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.