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Driff Records CD2001

Pandelis Karayorgis Double Trio
Driff Records CD 2002

Boston’s Driff Records doesn’t put out a lot of records, but its batting average is high. The label’s two 2020 releases, Cutout and CliffPools keep their hit streak alive while reminding us that it’s important to look beyond New York and Chicago for high-level, left-leaning jazz tinged with the avant-garde.

Cutout (Jorrit Dijkstra, soprano and alto; Jeb Bishop, trombone; Pandelis Karayorgis, piano; Nate McBride, bass; Luther Gray, drums) is a versatile, multidimensional group that is as at home in a loose straight-ahead swing environment as it is in avant-garde abstractness. Their music burns – not with the unbridled passion of youth, but with an assuredness and maturity that can only come from decades of honing one’s craft alongside peers who share the same values. It’s obvious that one of the quintet’s most cherished values is communication. One gets the sense that more than other bands, the members are all on equal footing rather than being boxed into certain roles and have the freedom to interject at any time when he has something important to say. Some of this comes from the charts, which assign the lead voice throughout the group. Solos rarely feature a single soloist blowing for too long on his own, as other members of the group often join in to offer commentary.

Cutout operates mostly in the piano to mezzo-forte range, so when it opens the throttle, as on the opening to “Shadow,” it is done to great effect and maximizes the contrast in dynamics. In fact, contrast might be one of the group’s defining characteristics. On the opening cut, “Hyphen,” Bishop’s spirited solo over Gray’s relaxed medium swing is in stark opposition to Dijkstra’s more subdued solo, which he plays without any accompaniment until Karayorgis jumps in and the pair begin to move together. Instances like this in which textures or tempos or moods change give the music an episodic feel.

Two-thirds of the album consists of tracks that feature multiple compositions, in effect creating a collection of mini-suites. The first is “Chainsaw Pedicure/Tenet,” which opens with a repeated piano figure punctuated by a series of single, horn hoots, which Dijkstra and Bishop play long enough to where it almost becomes comical. Just when it seemed the pair would go on indefinitely, they stop and transition into a rat-ta rat-ta rat-ta rat-ta line before quickly unravelling. They sound like a circus band that forgot to take its medication. After hypomanic solos from Bishop and Dijkstra on soprano, Karayorgis plays a solo transition into “Tenet,” which by contrast to “Chainsaw” features long held notes, softer dynamics, and more space. Even Dijkstra’s growling alto near the end is relatively restrained. The juxtaposition of “Chainsaw Pedicure’s” zaniness with “Tenet’s” carefully placed notes really works.

Cutout uses a similar strategy of combining contrasting and complimentary compositions on the two other mini-suites “Shadow/Bird Call/Chickadee” and the closing track “Neumes/Jowls.” The sprightly “Shadow” opens in an energetic fanfare and it’s one of the few instances where the band settles into a standard soloist plus rhythm section format. “Bird Call” sounds just like the title, with squawks and chirps, while “Chickadee” is as playful as when the little birds flit about on a bird feeder. “Neumes” is quiet and atmospheric and shifts between duos, trios, and quartets. “Jowls” is a medium swinger marked by the horns playing a phrase where the note values get shorter and shorter before snapping back like a rubber band. “Jowls/Neumes” captures the band’s range: from swing to free time, playful to deadly serious, loud to soft, wild to delicate. Their ability to play so much music without having to rely on flashy pyrotechnics to convince us of their chops speaks to their mastery and confidence in each other. The album’s only possible negative is that it might be one song too long, as several of the same compositional gestures and devices begin to reappear. But that’s a minor quibble about a really fine album that I find more to enjoy and appreciate with each listen.

Cutout                                                                                                                      ©Stephen Malagodi

The common denominator between Cutout and CliffPools is the Karayorgis/McBride/Gray trio, which performs under the name of Pools. Karayorgis’s other piano trio with bassist Damon Smith and drummer Eric Rosenthal goes by Cliff. Put both trios together to create a five-piece and we get: CliffPools.

The personnel is not the only constant between these two albums, as the double trio shares Cutout’s attention to detail, a broad dynamic range, deep interaction, and a common vocabulary. “Weft” opens the album with a churning maelstrom of basses and drums with Karayorgis scrambling across the keyboard, creating angular shapes in the process. Gray takes most of the cymbal work while Rosenthal works on the lower end of the kit. The pair are so in synch that they literally finish each other’s phrases, as drum figures pan across the stereo field from one drummer to the other. “Scale the Firmament” is another burner, with Gray laying down an uptempo – but not quite bebop – ride pattern while Rosenthal adds color and texture. Here, Karayorgis teeter-totters between left and right hand while working out a couple musical puzzles. He has a percussive touch and is as comfortable dropping anvil-heavy block chords as he is quiet reflection, jaunty zig zags, or having each hand engage in a game of tag with the other.

The instrumentation might suggest it’s a wall of sound all the time – which could get tedious – but the group spends equal time in calmer waters. “Warp” is one of the standout softer tracks on which Karayorgis seems to be testing the limit of just how little he can play. The bassists, who rarely play at the same time, and the drummers, who are both on mallets, seem to be playing half of what they might on their own in a trio setting, resulting in the sound of a trio that just happens to have five guys.

One of the pleasures of listening to this sort of ensemble comes from focusing on one or two players at a time both in and out of context of what the rest of the band is doing. The music’s many layers reward close attention to the interpersonal dynamics. How are the drummers working together? How are the basses working together? Who is Karayorgis playing with or against at any given moment? And when he is accompanied by only one bassist and one drummer, which of the four possible piano trio lineups is playing?

Given how deeply the ensemble listens and how unified its members are, their communication creates a lot of information to take in, so CliffPools is not something to just put on casually. It isn’t possible to decode it all in one or two listens, and with the myriad ways to approach it as a listener, it can become a slightly different album each time. It might not go into high rotation in my collection, but it will occupy an important space.
–Chris Robinson

Intakt Records

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