Before the lockdown, music fans in New York had innumerable opportunities to see some of the best players in town work up their new albums in front of an audience. Watching the Dave Pietro Group run through a considerable portion of the picturesque, Ravel-inspired material on the saxophonist’s new record Hypersphere at a relatively intimate theatre show last year was a good omen – for the album at least. Fast forward to more than a year later: it’s out, it’s excellent and streaming at Bandcamp..and it’s illegal for the band to play that venue now. Feel like you’re living in communist China?
Pietro may be best known as a lyrical soloist and a first-call player for big bands, but he’s also a strong tunesmith with a sharp political awareness and a great sense of humor. He wrote the album’s opening track, Kakistocracy before the lockdown – yet, at a time when the corporate media have nothing but shrill masker paranoia on loop 24/7, it resonates even more potently. Over a brooding Gary Versace piano figure, he orchestrates a tense triangulation with trumpeter Alex Sipiagin and trombonist Ryan Keberle, the latter subtly ushering in a serpentine groove. Johnathan Blake’s insistent flurries behind the drum kit are another highlight; the final conversation between the horns is irresistibly funny.
Likewise, the early part of Pietro’s solo early on in Boulder Snowfall, which is more lustrously wary than wintry, Blake and bassist Johannes Weidenmueller adding bounce as the scene warms up to some triumphant flourishes from Versace.
Versace switches to organ for Gina, a lush, pillowy, catchy ballad which Pietro dedicates to his wife. The album’s title track, with its echo phrases and incisive Versace piano chords, makes a good segue. Sipiagin takes a flurrying first solo; Pietro bounces around at the top of his range; Blake’s colorful volleys drive it home.
Incandescent is exactly that, a triumphantly soaring and glimmering jazz pastorale of sorts. Pietro’s carefree but slightly smoky solo is matched by the other two horns in turn, exploratory and lyrical. Quantum Entanglement, a cha-cha with Versace opening on blippy electric piano, is a carefree platform for dancing sax and piano solos.
The understatedly moody, modally-tinged Tales of Mendacity has steadily wafting, distantly ominous harmonies and Pietro’s edgiest, most incisive solo here. The jaunty disco crescendo is suspiciously blithe: this would fit well in the Darcy James Argue catalog. Pietro closes the record with Orison: the pensively dancing bass solo is an unexpectedly cool way to open this bright chorale with its increasingly animated French Late Romantic-inspired atmosphere.