The Sky Inside (Pirouet) is the third album album from this quintet, which follows 7 Black Butterflies in 2005, and The Irrational Numbers in 2008. Bassist/bandleader Drew Gress’ own-name recordings don’t drop very often, probably because he’s so prolific on others’ sessions, but they make a case for his group as among the best in class. And what a class. Subsets of the quintet also comprise the all-improv trio Paraphrase (Tim Berne, Gress, and Tom Rainey) and its edgier, more modernist variant Hard Cell, led by Tim Berne and featuring Craig Taborn, Gress, and Rainey. Berne is paired in the front line with a fellow ECM bandleader, trumpeter Ralph Alessi.
Gress plays subtle electronics on The Sky Inside‘s title track, but the main thrust of the album is acoustic, with individual voices or combinations occasionally laying out to expose the textural grain of the others’ interactions in ways that give a unique twist to post-bop power and immediacy.
All of the compositions are by Gress, and the blend of complexity and immediacy in each of his pieces has distinctive characteristics. Each piece is intricate, with much disconcertingly tricksy twisting of time, which tends to disrupt expectation. Yet every unifying theme and melodic development has instant appeal, particularly instant standard “Kernel”.
The set runs to a lean 72 minutes, so it takes a while to fully appreciate but repays repeated listening with new details snagging the ear every time,.
Other highlights include the intense opening number, “No Saint”, on which Gress brings out Tim Berne’s loquacious best; the ravishing melody and lucid piano trioism on “In Streamline”; Berne and Alessi’s unaccompanied entanglement at the outset, and their development of the long-ish title track, the album’s most impressionistic piece; their parallel but contrasting paths into the discursive “Long Story Short”; the thrumming, plummy bass early in the knotty postbop of “Zaftig Redux”, and Craig Taborn’s irruptive solo further into the same track; the shift in “Jacquard” from tight, contrapuntal ensemble playing to a fragile, pared-back coda. Best of all, though, is the way “Delve” never quite shucks off the ambivalent mood instilled by an edgy, enigmatic opening. Honestly, it’s all good.
Drew Gress bass, electronics; Tim Berne alto saxophone; Ralph Alessi trumpet; Craig Taborn piano; Tom Rainey drums.
Tim Berne’s Snakeoil – Shadow Man.