With a background in drums and percussion, pianist and composer Rich Pellegrin's strong ear for rhythmic sonority has guided his previous releases, Three-Part Odyssey (2010) and Episodes IV-VI (2011). His approach to improvised music takes in the harmonic extrapolations of McCoy Tyner and the jocular symphonism of leaders like Gil Evans.
For his newest release, Pellegrin has focused his musical lens. Recorded with a generation of Seattle musicians confidently fluent in their own voices, including R.Scott Morning (trumpet), Neil Welch (saxophone), Christopher Icasiano (drums), Evan Flory-Barnes (bass), Down is an album of studies: investigations in instrumental approach and lessons in emotional gesture, from subtle to expansive.
Pellegrin's rapid-fire approach sparks the labyrinthine Kafka-logic of the album opener, "Trial." His sense of the timbral possibilities of the piano and appreciation of its high and low ends breathes a vitality into his solos. Welch shows his sonic affinity with the pianist, whittling Pellegrin's elaborations to their melodic core, then distorting them in his post-avant growl.
The elegance and simplicity of Pellegrin's writing is evident on "Acceptance." The ambiguously yearning instrumental "Down," is something like light filtering through a dockside window. Morning's ominous solo here, guttered and nihilistic, fits the dour mood which Flory-Barnes and Icasiano buttress with exacting detail.
The album's closing track offers an astonishing reprise, outfitted with the orchestral assistance of the Mizzou New Music Ensemble. Opening with Pellegrin's Langgaardian unfurling of melodies, followed by Welch's timbral mirroring Jeremiah Rittel's clarinet and Erin Spencer's flute, the suite shows the melodic possibilities in the relatively simple modal tune. Flory-Barnes' solo demonstrates his virtuosic classicism, while Icasiano's delayed snare work and modern sense of rhythm sustains the projection of Pellegrin's ambitious concept.
"Exile" shows Pellegrin's writing at its most elusive. Based on a three-note vamp of a fourth from f to b flat, the song's pensive blending of harmony into rhythm brings out slight shades of color— suggested by the bass and exchange of melody between the two horns—that inspire some of the most exciting solos on the album. The transparent emotion of this shared exile reminds us of Camus' message that it is not our task to unleash our own exile into the world, but "to transform them in ourselves and others."