Trombonist John Yao thinks big. His music is incredibly catchy, often cinematic, with epic sweep and abundant humor, whether he’s leading his 17-Piece Instrument big band or his quintet. But his latest quintet album, Presence – streaming at Bandcamp – is a radical departure. A distantly haunting, persistent sense of loss pervades the compositions. The central theme seems to be how to maintain a sense of continuity when everything goes horribly awry, in the wake of losing a good friend. It’s one of the half-dozen best jazz releases of 2018 so far.
On one hand, this is a new direction for the typically extroverted Yao. On the other, the frequent latin grooves here are familiar territory, considering his longtime association with Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. Yao has a monthly residency at Terraza 7 in Queens, where he’s playing tonight, May 16 at 9 PM with a slightly different lineup than usual: Billy Drewes on saxes, Jon Irabagon on tenor, Peter Brendler on bass and Jeremy Noller on drums. Cover is $10.
The album opens with Tight Rope, an uneasy psychedelic latin funk number, Randy Ingram’s lingering Rhodes holding the center as Iragabon’s soprano sax methodically and enigmatically leaps around, the bandleader introducing an unexpected calm. It wouldn’t be out of place in the early 70s Eddie Palmieri songbook.
The title track is more contemplative, drummer Shawn Baltazor working subtle permutations on a simple clave, around the kit, Ingram and Yao finding closure with concise solos. Baltazor ushers in the third number, the broodingly starry ballad M. Howard with muted polyrhythms beneath Yao’s sober foghorn riffs and Ingram’s moody piano, Brendler holding close to the center, up to a pensively spacious solo. The horn harmonies rising behind Ingram’s angst-fueled modal piano solo are one of the album’s high points.
Over the Line has a funky sway and more of the gorgeously muted melodicism that pervades the record, Yao making his way through the album’s most enigmatic yet haunting solo, then hands off to Irabagon’s flickering ghost of a sopranino sax solo as Ingram glimmers eerily in the upper registers. Baltazor’s rise from sepulchral to resigned and energetic caps off one of Yao’s best songs.
The tumbling, altered New Orleans-isms and chattering individual voices of the free interlude Fuzzy Logic are suspiciously joyous. The shadowy, blues-tinged modalities of Nightfall make a stark contrast, Yao reaching down into the well to pull up some sustenance over a nimble, crescendoing, syncopated drive.
He opens 1247 Chestnut, a tone poem of sorts, with a goodnaturedly terse theme over muted, rubato tom-toms, Irabagon’s soprano further lightening the mood, Ingram branching outward with rustling neoromanticisms. The album’s final number is the aptly titled Bouncy’s Bounce, which has a triumphant Louis Armstrong-ish swing, a celebration of getting back in the groove to stay.