Drummer Rob Garcia has a long and storied history playing with some of the greatest creative talents in the New York scene. But he’s also a composer, with a fiercely relevant, fearlessly populist streak. His latest album Illumination – streaming at Spotify – has more of a general spiritual theme. The chordless quartet here is an interesting configuration for him, with Noah Preminger on tenor sax, John O’Gallagher on alto and Marcos Varela on bass. As you would expect from Garcia, there’s lots of good translucent energy on this record: it’s one of the most colorful and tuneful drummer-led projects of recent years.
They open with a straight-up swing tune, First Glimpse Into the Shadows, an aggressively flurrying hook giving way to judicious scrambles from the saxes as Garcia colors the music with one acerbic flourish and offbeat smack after another, Varela rising from a casual stroll to looming chords to drive a peak home.
The quartet build the title track off a bright, insistent riff, shifting from a funk-inflected groove to loping syncopation as O’Gallagher spins wildly, Preminger and Garcia shadowing him. Garcia’s variations on a gritty, chugging pulse fuel the triumphant coda.
Father Get Ready begins as a latin soul groove reduced to most succinct terms, Garcia both nibbling and chewing at the scenery, with a characteristically outside-the-box yet tersely blues-infused Preminger solo.
Little Trees has a similarly lively, coyly accent insistence that could be Afro-Colombian, plus more deliciously adrenalizing, rapidfire sax work and a rewarding duel at the end. Garcia works circular variations from his rims and toms as Silver Dagger slowly coalesces into a soulful, syncopated pastorale with more precise, hard-hitting sax work and a fondly bouncy bass solo.
Likewise, the group venture outward from the cheery, anthemically bucolic melody of Colinas de Santa Maria. The increasingly combative, quasi-fugal interweave of the saxes is a cool touch, as is Varela’s Afrobeat-tinged solo.
Garcia opens the sagely bluesy ballad Gracias with a stately 12/8 groove, a vehicle for purist blues work by the whole band. JJ Sensei – a dedication to Garcia’s longtime employer and martial arts guru Joseph Jarman – turns into a lively, swinging launching pad for feral sax, as well as a wryly expansive drum solo.
The quartet wind up the album with two tracks titled Parallels. The first begins with rather wary syncopation and straightens out as the horns simmer and reach precisely toward escape velocity. The second, a catchy, staggered, edgily chromatic funk tune, winds up the album on a high note. Garcia is really on a roll with this material: wouldn’t it be great if this same band could reconvene in the studio, or even onstage.