John Yao’s Triceratops Is Warm-Blooded and Has a Brain
Trombonist John Yao‘s music tends to be vivid, colorful and cinematic. As you would guess from someone who named his current quintet Triceratops, he also has a sense of humor – these guys are actually the furthest thing from dinosaurs. The quintet’s eruditely tuneful debut album How We Do – streaming at Bandcamp – is a change of pace in that Yao’s game plan was to challenge himself writing harmonically transparent charts for three horns in a chordless band, as well as to mix up the textures for the sake of contrast. Improvisation tends to wander further outside here than in the rest of his catalog, occasionally with more of a hardbop edge as well.
It doesn’t take Jon Irabagon two minutes into the opening number, Three Parts As One, before he’s skronking and then warmly rejoining the frontline, with a bit of a cheery Tex-Mex touch echoed by fellow altoist Billy Drewes over the clustering rhythm section of bassist Peter Brendler and drummer Mark Ferber.
Brendler pedals spacious, syncopated chords as the moody, rather majestic Triceratops Blues lurches along: thematically and tunefully, it brings to mind JD Allen’s occasional work with multiple-horn bands. The album’s title track slowly coalesces, like a B train slowly making its way out of the yards and then picking up the pace, in this case with a jaunty steamwhistle shuffle.
The Golden Hour is aptly titled, a waltzing study in lustre, divergent and convergent architecture, both harmonically and rhythmically, with a killer, bracingly spiraling solo from Drewes at the center. Doin’ the Thing has a matter-of-fact, Adderley Brothers-tinged swing, a wiseass Irabagon solo, Yao taking his time and choosing his spots afterward.
Circular Path has a lovely lullaby of an intro, Irabagon’s lyricism (is that a sopranino sax?) echoed by Yao as the rhythm drifts out tidally. Yao mashes up early 60s-style Prestige Records swing with momentary indie classical-style echo phrasing and an artful tempo change in Two Sides. The group wind up the album with Irabagon’s suspiciously cheery Tea for T, complete with a sprint to the finish line.
For a digital recording, the production values are outstanding; you can hear every woody note in Brendler’s spring-loaded lines, the snap of Ferber’s rims and every icy whisper of the cymbals.