John Yao’s Triceratops: How We Do (See Tao)

A review of the trombonist-led quintet's debut album

John Yao's Triceratops, How We Do
The cover of How We Do by John Yao’s Triceratops

John Yao’s Triceratops (named for a three-horned dinosaur) is American, but could be taken for European. Like many of the best current European bands, Triceratops operates in that fertile zone between inside and outside, prioritizes the collective ensemble over the individual soloist, and forgoes a chording instrument.

The front line is indeed three horns: Yao on trombone, Jon Irabagon on tenor saxophone, and Billy Drewes on soprano and alto saxophones. Peter Brendler and Mark Ferber are on bass and drums. Yao’s meticulous compositions and arrangements contain many internal moving parts: shifting background figures, motivic recurrences, punctuating riffs, fluid counterpoint, sudden calls and thoughtful responses. Tunes don’t flow. They pitch and spike, episodically. Even a lyrical ballad like “Circular Path” contains nervous tension.

For this album that is not about solos, the subject of solos cannot be avoided. Yao’s playing here places him with the best of the new trombone generation (e.g., Marshall Gilkes, Michael Dease, Alan Ferber). Drewes, an under-the-radar veteran, is dynamic. On “Three Parts as One,” he even matches Irabagon for trilling, squalling extremity. As for Irabagon, he has dissociative identity disorder—in a good way. Very few living jazz musicians can function on such a high level in so many styles. He’s relatively well-behaved on How We Do, but he is still a wildly unpredictable, exciting improviser; on “Doin’ the Thing,” his furious runs stay within the margins of the song, barely. Yet he also serves the ensemble as a participant in enigmatic harmony and background support. Yao provides space for improvisers (including himself) to cut loose, but always pulls them back into the overriding communal purpose.

How We Do is an outstanding example of what is happening on the leading edges of the jazz art form at this moment in time.

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