Trombonist John Yao has one of the most distinctive voices in the New York jazz scene. His music has a translucent logic that can go completely off the rails in a burst of humor. Yet he can be just as poignant. His latest album Off-Kilter, with his three-horn band Triceratops (due to hit his Bandcamp page any minute) is exactly that, although it’s just as contiguous. The horn charts are playful, often comedic. yet erudite in a John McNeil-type vein: it’s definitely Yao’s funniest record to date. He and the band are playing the album release show at 5 PM on June 12 outdoors on the flatbed trailer at Culture Lab in Long Island City
The opening number, Below the High Rise is a steady, determined, ruggedly anthemic tune. Yao’s staggered harmonies with saxophonists Jon Irababon and Billy Drewes make this ensemble sound much larger than it is, reflecting his work with big bands. A wryly triangulated conversation reaches toward Keystone Kops territory as Mark Ferber’s drums get into it.
The conversation gets all twisted up in the next cut, Labyrinth….and then Yao brings everybody together for a gorgeous bit of golden age 50s swing before the shenanigans start again. Irabagon thrives on this like he tends to do, and the crew throwing elbows as Yao and the rhythm section motor in for the basket are a typical touch.
Interlude No. 1 is a luminous, spacious intro of sorts livened by Ferber’s animated rimwork, making a good segue with the next track, Quietly. Bassist Robert Sabin launches into a catchy clave groove after the radiantly harmonized horns introduce it, with diverging voices, a wistful Yao solo and a welcome, slinky return.
Yao goes for a wide-angle harmonic balance with the saxes in the catchy Crosstalk: the beep-beep horns, a frequent trope here, are predictably amusing, as is another increasingly combative exchange that may be more scripted than we realize. The way Yao sneaks his way back to swing is a lot of fun.
He and the saxes take their time working their way into Unfiltered, a brightly syncopated ballad, Sabin choosing his spots for a solo as Ferber edges around the perimeter. The Morphing Line is a deceptive, shapeshifting diptych: the rhythm section work a hypnotically churning, gritty drive beneath calm, sustained overlays, then it grows more wary and frenetic over an altered second line shuffle.
The horns run coy concentric circles as Ferber chews the scenery a little in the brief Interlude No. 2. Yao winds up the album with the title track, which bears a suspicious resemblance to a famous Miles Davis tune until Sabin veers away from his octaves, Irabagon goes fluttering upward to an unexpected calm, then the band eventually take it as far outside as anything they do here. There is bound to be plenty of good energy like this at the Queens show.