Listening to Dan Cray and his group, one is reminded that underplaying can cast more light than a sky full of fireworks. That's not to say that there aren't busy moments on Meridies
; there are plenty, especially in ostinati that the piano and bass play in unison to build momentum and sometimes to thread intricate rhythms together. But these occur only where they makes sense. Even with such elements, an impression of spaciousness permeates Cray's performances; nothing comes across as cluttered or superfluous.
Take the opening track, an ingenious treatment of the Charlie Chaplin chestnut "Smile." Right from the top, bassist Clark Sommers and Cray's left hand play a restless, not at all simple figure that fuels the 7/8 groove. Cray states the theme very simply over this, while drummer Mark Ferber stays out of the way, just keeping parts of the eighth-note pulse on closed hi-hat and tapping softly now and then on the snare rim. After the first verse, things loosen up, but everybody still holds back. They answer each other, meet at some key point and then fly off again. The dynamics rise just a bit and then, like a breath exhaled, fall down to whisper at the end.
This approach recurs on the next song, Cray's "Worst Enemy." Joined now by Noah Preminger on tenor, they once again state the theme, in 15/8 this time, with the bass and the pianist's left hand repeating another counter-theme together. Ferber steps out a bit more, though, with a freewheeling Elvin Jones-esque attitude during Cray's solo. Then, unexpectedly, as Preminger starts to blow, everyone switches to straightahead swing in 4.
There are other surprises, each one a subtle, witty aside. Inattentive listeners might not even notice that metrical change in "Worst Enemy" which means they'd also be likely to miss the hipster joke slipped into the home stretch on Joe Henderson's "Serenity," the only other cover on the album. After breezing down the post-bop straightaway for a while, they power into the last lap, where for generations jazzers often decide to trade fours with the drummer. So it happens here, except something doesn't quite feel right. Check it out: Preminger plays his four bars, and then Ferber grabs his--three! What's the point? Obviously, it's just to have a little fun with people's expectations.
Beautiful moments abound as well on Meridies
: the introduction and fusion of two distinct moods, autumnal and bluesy, on "At Least"; the spare but luminous harmonies that fascinate throughout the ballad "Amor Fati"; the coda on "Winter Rose (1728)" that begins as a simple, upper-register piano figure and then slowly blossoms into fresh musical exploration as the other instruments enter.
Every second is executed with taste and balance--a kind of jazz feng shui. This music engages both mind and spirit, not changing the world so much as brightening the day.