The piano-less trio is tailor-made for Rudy Royston. The combustible combinations the drummer derives from his kit contain enough rhythmic refreshment, textural variation and ensemble ingenuity to compensate for any absence of chordal or harmonic intrigue. He’s a dynamo who can be feathery or wry as the situation warrants.
Rise of Orion is the sort of spare, brutish blend of grooves and eruptions Royston’s fans expected from his debut. But 303—a 2014 septet recording named for an area code in his native Colorado—was an expansive grab bag, with a pianist, guitarist, two horns and two basses playing covers of Radiohead and Mozart as well as originals. Since then, the in-demand Royston has guested on numerous records, twining with saxophonists on two of the best discs from 2016, Tom Tallitsch’s Gratitude and JD Allen’s trio date Americana. He needed a similarly formidable frontman on Rise of Orion, and the vibrant and versatile multi-saxophonist Jon Irabagon fills the bill.
Irabagon loves to gnaw on a riff with brio, veering away at the brink of monotony after Royston has either redoubled the tension or provided counterpoint to the vamp, an interaction that works especially well on the tenor workouts “Nautical” and “Kolbe War,” the latter inspired by Royston’s son conjuring battles during Lego fantasy-play. As with 303 there are offbeat covers. Both Bill Withers’ “Make a Smile for Me” and “Dido’s Lament,” by 17th-century composer Henry Purcell, have a languid pace that accommodates bassist Yasushi Nakamura’s gorgeous two-minute intro on the former and Irabagon escalating intensity into a scalding blues on the latter. The soulful homage to Royston’s mom, “Sister Mother Clara,” mimics the Withers tune via Nakamura’s august lines and Irabagon’s piping soprano.
Rise of Orion is most attractive when the trio’s bash-and-blow attack is contoured by sweet grooves. It happens on “Man O To,” a slab of almost-abrasive funk inspired by a Rumi love poem, and on “We Had It All,” where Nakamura strums, Irabagon stomps and Royston keeps it in the pocket with an elastic swing that is irresistible.