Rich Pellegrin and his artful quintet made a promise in 2011.
It came in the form of Three-Part Odyssey
, the debut album from the pianist, also a University of Missouri professor, and his partners in jazz. Daring and possessed of many moods, it certainly could have existed as a complete, self-contained musical statement.
But Pellegrin and his mates intended the album to be just the first chapter of a growing corpus, a Three-Part Odyssey
within a greater musical triptych. It was no crime, then, that Pellegrin and Co. left listeners wanting more — they always had designs on delivering that more.
The promise of Three-Part Odyssey
is kept and extended, in part, on the group's latest, Episodes IV-VI
, released once again on the forward-thinking Seattle label, OA2 Records.
Whereas its precursor split the songwriting among four members — with a Steve Reich composition thrown in for good measure — Pellegrin alone is responsible for penning the nearly 50 minutes' worth of music found here, grouped into the titular three episodes.
Opener "Intention" begins with plaintive, unaccompanied solo piano reminiscent of Brad Mehldau. In short order, soft spurts of percussion and a warm fuzz and flutter, courtesy of trumpeter R. Scott Morning and tenor saxophonist Neil Welch, gently trouble the waters and lend an air of anticipation. The group takes its time shaping the tune over 11 minutes, exits, entrances and crossing lines leading to a number of intriguing, subtle mutations and permutations; methodical, groovy underpinnings allow melodies and countermelodies to swirl and take shape in the atmosphere above. Morning and Welch trade leads with relish before the song reaches a gleeful, ascendant climax.
"Affirmation," the other half of "Episode IV," springs from soulful, almost gospel-like piano that has the air of accessibility while retaining a bit of mystery and character. Drummer Chris Icasiano enters and establishes a sharp groove; setting the pace, he and the rest of the band always keep the line moving forward. That sense of purposeful, perpetual motion is one of the record's hallmarks. There are great moments from the band's frontline, especially Welch; but, even as he exists in a low, quiet register, barely perceptible in the mix, bassist Evan Flory-Barnes steals the song with his lithe, lovely lines.
"Episode V" pairs "Hymn" and "Vigil." The former features Pellegrin's smooth glide and sure hands — he does some of his best melodic work here. Morning seizes some great opportunities, wandering in, over, around and through the groove early; later, he alternates between bold splashes of color and murmurs and sighs. The song benefits from Icasiano's steering and splendid rolls. Losing its luster in the best of ways, the tone eventually fades from bright articulation to a whisper, a terrific exercise in control and playing quietly but keenly.
The latter is, far and away, my favorite song on the record. Welch opens things up with a lovely, windy line that is quickly cradled by the rhythm section. "Vigil" moves ahead with a sensibility that's effortlessly cool before variations occur. First, Pellegrin creates a greater mood through his pointillistic melodies. A more seismic shift comes approximately halfway through as the song is distilled to warm resonance and ambient horn. Flickers, claps and rolls threaten in the distance, before getting closer and closer than they initially appeared in the rearview mirror, the song taking on a freeform — but not free-for-all — feel. Impeccable saxophone and brilliant, burbling trumpet move in and out of the spotlight as the tune rises and ramps to a finish.
"Episode VI" consists of the aptly named closer "Epilogue." Dark, rapid piano and intense drum rolls set the mood and the table for a backlit horn duet. After a few minutes, both Morning and Welch head off in their own directions, though each serves up some serious skronk and squawk. The song — and album — head toward a terrific, triumphant coda as Pellegrin emerges from the squall with captivating, chordal playing — though not without a few spry runs sprinkled in — that grows and gains vitality. When he and the band do come down from a true high point, his volume tapers but his lyricism extends to the last note.
There are most definitely solos and feature moments throughout, but one of the most admirable and striking things about Episodes IV-VI
is how textures are created and furthered as a group — this is exemplary ensemble playing, pure musical democracy. Pellegrin's compositional voice is clear, but how his ideas are sounded out is up to all five players.
By focusing on accent, nuance, texture and other ideas that can so easily be ignored, Rich Pellegrin Quintet does something rare — it satisfies and creates thirst all at once, delivering on past promises and making new ones for the closing chapter of its intriguing trilogy.