Trombonist Nick Grinder has only released one prior album, Ten Minutes (2014), but the Bay Area native has logged plenty of time in Broadway and Off-Broadway orchestras and with artists ranging from band leader Darcy James Argue to cerebral pop artist St. Vincent. This wide range of experiences has conditioned him to absorb all aspects of his surroundings, no matter how small the detail. Farallon is named for a set of islands near Grinder’s childhood home in northern California. Populated by seabirds and marine mammals and inaccessible to all but a few biologists, it came to represent for him an ideal place that can only be seen from a distance. This might not be a concept album, but Grinder does seem to look beyond the immediate surroundings in his music.
Alto saxophonist Ethan Helm joins Grinder on the frontline for most of the album. The rhythm section—featuring Juanma Trujillo (guitar), Walter Stinson (bass), and Matt Honor (drums)—provides flexible support, staying in the background when necessary or pulling forward if the situation calls for more interaction. “5 Steps” casts the group in a free bop mood, as Grinder and Helm trade lines back and forth while Trujillo comments loudly behind them. “Potential” moves slowly and pensively, again with horns volleying long tones, almost like a chamber group. A reading of Thelonious Monk’s “Reflections” makes you wonder why this ballad isn’t a more popular piece in the pianist’s canon. Grinder plays the warm, romantic melody in the midrange, adding subtle flourishes to the phrases that are powerful enough to make it stand out. Put Farallon down as one of the sleeper hits of the year.