Devin Gray, one of the most promising drummer-composers on the New York scene, made his leader debut on record with 2012's widely lauded Dirigo Rataplan, which saw him front an eponymous crew of heavyweight veterans - saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, trumpeter Dave Ballou and bassist Michael Formanek - in a set of his original compositions. Cadence magazine declared it "fantastic," while JazzTimes said that Gray's debut represented "the work of a young artist who knows who he is." For his second album as a leader, RelativE ResonancE - to be released June 9 via Skirl Records - Gray convened a band of close New York associates, also trading under the name RelativE ResonancE: saxophonist-clarinetist Chris Speed, pianist Kris Davis and bassist Chris Tordini. Whereas Gray's writing for Dirigo Rataplan is lyrical, open and encouraging of free-minded improv, the RelativE ResonancE material is rhythmically intricate and more composition-driven, while still leaving room for some of the scene's most individual improvisers to express themselves. Gray's RelativE ResonancE will celebrate the release of the album with a performance in the Sound It Out series at Greenwich House Music School in New York City's West Village, on June 13 (as part of a double-bill with the Matt Mitchell Quartet, featuring Chris Speed, Chris Tordini and Dan Weiss).
Gray took his inspiration for the album title and band name RelativE ResonancE from a comment by the great Tony Williams in a masterclass seen on YouTube. "Tony was talking about tuning a drum and getting the 'relative resonance' right between the top and bottom heads so that the drums will speak or sing," Gray explains. "I thought about that idea as a universal philosophy that extends to an entire band - getting the relative resonance between instruments and personalities right so that the group will really sing. I wanted this band, RelativE ResonancE, to have a special rapport - and we've developed that over almost five years of playing together. This is vital because these compositions are very different, and exciting, for me as a musician. Writing for Dirigo Rataplan is about coming up with interesting lines for great players and seeing where we can take them. Composing for RelativE ResonancE is more about creating involved, layered material and then experimenting with how we play it to make the music come alive.
"The pieces on this album are like multi-dimensional mosaics," Gray continues. "Some work more like traditional tunes - "City Nothing City," "In the Cut" and the title number - but with the other five tracks, I wrote a totally independent, etude-like part for each us. That's an unconventional method, but I was eager to see how the music would come out when we played these parts together, honing things so that they were perfectly attuned. The process was like tuning the band to create a mosaic that resonated."
Gray's stature as a creative composer and soulful player can be measured by the company he keeps. The drummer, who turns 32 two days before the release of RelativE ResonancE, met Formanek while a student at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, where the bassist is on the faculty. The elder musician says: "Devin has always been one of those natural drummers, with an organic rhythmic energy that you can just feel. More than that, he has become a very creative musician - his music has its own personality, which is the goal for any artist." For his part, Skirl proprietor Chris Speed says: "Devin's passionate enthusiasm for music-making - his commitment to discovering ideas and developing them into weird, fun, cohesive music - is infectious, a pleasure to be a part of."
About his bandmates in RelativE ResonancE, Gray says: "They're all fearless musicians, open-minded and full of integrity - and real individuals, even if there's confusion in rehearsal with each of them named Chris/KrisŠ With Kris Davis, she's so forward-thinking, always willing and able to find spaces in the music that she can fill with her creativity. Chris Speed brings an incredibly wide base of experience - playing avant-improv with Tim Berne, world-influenced tunes with Pachora and more traditional jazz with his own trio, among much else - to the interpreting of any piece. And I love the way Chris Tordini hears music - no matter the setting, he has a great ear for how to push music to be all it can be. That's what every musician should aim for, really, and what every band should do collectively. The music on this album was inspired by modernist classical composers like Berg and Xenakis, as well as jazz figures like Ornette Coleman with his harmolodics and Henry Threadgill with his endlessly inspiring compositions. Ultimately, though, this music is the relative resonance
between these compositions and these players, the sounds we have on our instruments and the way our personalities work together."
Born and bred in Maine and a New Yorker since 2006, Gray leads the groups RelativE ResonancE and Dirigo Rataplan, with a second album's worth of music for the latter band already written and debuted live. Time Out New York has praised "Gray's smart compositions, which balance formal elasticity with a meticulous sense of pacing." He performs regularly in duos with saxophonist Ellery Eskelin and drummer Gerald Cleaver. Gray has also toured Europe leading his Swedish/American band Slicing and Dicing, as well as with the cooperative VAX (including Patrick Breiner and Liz Kosack). VAX has released two vinyl-only albums, in 2013 and 2014. As a sideman, Gray has recorded upcoming albums as part of Nate Wooley's Argonautica (with Ron Miles, Jozef Dumoulin, Cory Smythe and Rudy Royson) and the Daniel Levine Trio (with Marc Hannaford). The latter group recorded an album for upcoming release, with Mark Helias at the helm.
Last year, Gray released the album Jagged Spheres with Anna Webber and Elias Stemeseder. He recorded with Gary Thomas and Joel Grip as the trio Corpulent, releasing the album Wolf Walk in 2005. The drummer performs in the trio Transit Heavy with Satoko Fuji and Natsuki Tamura; the Richard Bonnet Trio with Tony Malaby; and in trios with Uri Caine and Michael Formanek and with Andrea Parkins and Frank Gratkowski. He also tours Europe regularly as a member of the Daniel Guggenheim Quartet with Peter Madsen and Sean Smith, having taken over the drum chair from Gerald Cleaver in 2012. Gray plays Canopus drums and Zildjian cymbals and sticks. Writing about him, All About Jazz has said that Gray is a musician who "dares you not to listen then challenges once you do."
Devin Gray: RelativE ResonancE
1. City Nothing City
2. In the Cut
4. Jungle Design (for Hannah Shaw)
5. Transatlantic Transitions
6. Undo the Redo
7. RelativE ResonancE (for Tadd Dameron)
8. Search It Up
All compositions by Devin Gray (VonerMusic, BMI)
Devin Gray, drums; Chris Speed, tenor saxophone and clarinet; Kris Davis, piano; Chris Tordini, double-bass
Produced by Devin Gray; recorded by Tom Tedesco at Tedesco Studios, NJ
Mixed with Eivind Opsvik; mastered with Liberty Ellman; edited with Nathaniel Morgan