In the best of circumstances jazz is a music where simultaneous contributions by a knowing squad drive the action towards a destination. The finale may be a grand crescendo, an offhand phrase, a rhythmic insinuation, or some seismic tempo shift. At times the music can feel like a puzzle whose main attraction is the taunting riddle at its center. Tom Rainey, one of modern improv’s most engaging percussionists, likes the idea of music as mystery. Dedicated to dodging clichés, he feels his way through situations, betting the farm on the fact his bandmates will refine the group coordination as the action unfolds. Obbligato (Intakt), high on the list of 2014’s most fetching jazz albums so far, centers on this process.
The drummer has deep skills at freely improvised music, but here he’s assigned his group a series of standards to realign. “Long Ago And Far Away,” “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” “Just In Time” – the melodies warm a listener’s ear to the familiar while his team recalibrates the songs’ structural DNA. Gone is the head-solo-head dynamic; in its place is a nod to polyphony that has toeholds in both Armstrong’s Hot Five sides and the Art Ensemble’s collective rambles. These nine themes are sliced and diced, and then put back together in a way that should tickle kaleidoscope fiends. A love song’s traditional mood may be upended, soaked with wry humor rather than romance. Often, declaration is ditched for a more cagey approach, one that gives each member the quintet member a chance to wax equally expressive.
Comprised of a cohort Rainey’s run with for a while now, the band feels natural weaving its way through these pieces. Trumpeter Ralph Alessi, saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, pianist Kris Davis, and bassist Drew Gress use their familiarity with each other to bump up the eloquence quotient. As they each make lyrical comments in “If I Should Lose You,” they parlay their individuality into a true ensemble statement. It’s literally refreshing – Ralph Rainger’s 1936 film ditty, a staple of jazz bands for decades, now sounds enigmatic rather than obvious.
What the band doesn’t dodge is swing. Time and again there’s plenty of rhythmic liftoff at play. On “Secret Love” it’s in the form of a sideways rumba. On the two spins through “Just In Time,” it’s overt. This isn’t a record about injecting old fashioned nuggets with dissonance. It’s about peeling back the top skin of these pieces and revealing a series of possible architectures. The familiarity is actually a key attraction, and Rainey banks on it. By the time the quintet is done with “Prelude To A Kiss,” Duke’s age-old beauty has received a bit of scrutiny, but it’s also been genuflected to as well.