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Matt Lavelle & Reggie Sylvester: Retrograde (ESP-Disk’)

Review of a duo album inspired by John Coltrane's Interstellar Space

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Cover of Retrograde by Matt Lavelle and Reggie Sylvester
Cover of Retrograde by Matt Lavelle and Reggie Sylvester

John Coltrane often chose his song titles arbitrarily. It’s likely that the four original tracks on Interstellar Space aren’t meant to evoke Mars, Jupiter, Venus and Saturn. Nevertheless, Matt Lavelle took inspiration from Coltrane and decided to pay tribute to the remaining planets—including poor, demoted Pluto—in a series of duets, much like Coltrane did with drummer Rashied Ali on that album. Lavelle, who studied with Ornette Coleman and has played with a wealth of forward-thinking musicians in New York, plays trumpet, flugelhorn, and alto clarinet. Drummer Reggie Sylvester, who played with Lavelle in the Bern Nix Quartet, serves as his partner.

The moods vary widely, much like the planets. Lavelle begins “Mercury” with a 12-bar pattern in an odd time signature, playing over a free tempo. Sylvester evokes the starkness of “Pluto” by limiting himself to a solitary kit hit every few beats. Lavelle’s clarinet playing is beguiling on this track, but the primal rhythm gets unnerving. The same goes for Lavelle’s occasional use of the cuíca, used where Coltrane once used bells, but which sounds more like the moans of an old dog. Better is “The Sun,” for which Sylvester sticks primarily to cymbal rolls, creating energy for Lavelle to harness.

Doubling on a reed can be a challenge for a brass player, but Lavelle finds a new personality on clarinet, which comes to a full boil when he spars with Sylvester during “Neptune.” On trumpet, he plays with focus and energy, bringing it back home with a bluesy delivery on closer “Earth.” Retrograde might be a turbulent journey, but ultimately it’s a worthwhile one.

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Originally Published