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Fly: Year of the Snake

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Tenor saxophone with bass and drums is a jazz format with a wild and woolly tradition. For tenor virtuosos like Sonny Rollins and Joe Henderson, trios have been opportunities to risk everything, to dance on a tightrope with no net.

The tenor trio that calls itself Fly breaks with this tradition explicitly. Fly plays cerebral, rapt, interactive chamber jazz, deriving a wide range of textures and colors from three instruments. Mark Turner often ascends to the tenor’s piping, keening altissimo register. Larry Grenadier often plays arco bass, in drones and murmurs and sighs. The asymmetrical, spare designs of drummer Jeff Ballard imply time rather than keep it.

“Kingston” is representative, an extraordinarily patient three-way commingling that flows and evolves for 10 minutes. Turner and Grenadier overlap in lingering unisons, then separate for fragmentary calls and cryptic responses. Ballard taps and rustles an ironic subtext. A solemn theme emerges, stately as a minuet, until Ballard begins a march step and Grenadier goes pizzicato with an ostinato. Turner faithfully traces the song, just above a whisper, until he breaks out and unravels complementary new ideas in long strands. When everyone closes around the theme again, they first whirl it, Grenadier sawing, Turner trilling like a flute. Then they let it slow into silence. “Kingston,” like the other six originals by band members, is improvised jazz so carefully, consciously patterned it sounds through-composed.

Five short, spontaneous interludes spaced throughout the program, “The Western Lands I-V,” imagine open terrains of being in which only the faintest sonic actions intrude: the ping of a cymbal, the single stroke of a bow. All five are momentary flickering impulses.

The music of Fly is sophisticated and sincere and enormously competent. These are important virtues, but likely to inspire more admiration than love.

Originally Published