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The Advancing Agenda: Devin Gray’s Socialytics

Just because grant support has dwindled and audience size has shrunk doesn’t mean that jazz is dead or dying. Quite the contrary. People often confuse the lack of attention and the abysmal metrics of the jazz business with the health of the music itself.


Take for instance the vibrant music delivered on Saturday, October 26 by Devin Gray’s Socialytics at Hampshire College’s Music & Dance Recital Hall. It pulsed with beauty, risk, and a sense of experimentation. While the remuneration was modest, the trio: Devin Gray, drums, Dave Ballou, trumpet, and Ryan Ferreira, guitar, delivered a plate full of engaged music-making, as Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares continued its 8th season of concerts.


Gray and Ferreira are among a large throng of fantastic improvisers under 40, who, against all odds, are reinvigorating jazz in its second century. The rewards for performers are found mostly on the bandstand and in forged friendships; artists committed to creative music mostly have to find other ways to make rent.


But the music is alive and moving in many fruitful directions, absorbing, as it always has, influences from everywhere. Makaya McCraven and his band of 20 and 30-somethings, who were at UMass two weeks ago, are invoking funk and spiritual jazz legacies. Others draw from hip hop, free jazz, contemporary classical, R&B, and multiple world music traditions. The Socialytics explore open jazz territory, unpacking, dissecting and transforming small memorable compositions by Gray in recurring acts of no-net improvising.


The veteran at 52, Dave Ballou is a Professor of Music at Towson University, and comfortable in most settings. He has recorded as a leader since the mid-1990s, and has performed with Andrew Hill, Rabih Aboul-Kahlil, Michael Formanek and John Hollenbeck. Over dinner hosted by Jazz Shares Board member Marta Ostapuik, Ballou told us how he turned down a lucrative tour with Steely Dan because he had already committed to, and would have a lot more fun in, Satoko Fujii’s adventurous New York Big Band. A good, steady day job makes it easier to prioritize the creative impulse. In Saturday’s pared down setting, Ballou’s broad and evocative vocabulary, ranging from long clarion tones to glitchy sputters, had plenty of room to shine.


Ryan Ferreira plays without attention grabbing histrionics or ear-splitting volume. He is an atmospherean, creating sonic beds of various colors, inserting pointed phrases, using pedals and loops to spread pastels and uncertainty. He did double duty with the Socialytics, playing through a guitar amp and a bass amp, providing bottom and melody for each of the four pieces. His preference for ambient soundscapes made the trio sound like a larger ensemble. Like his music, and true to his northern California roots, Ferreira is chill. He has history with Tim Berne, Chris Dingman and Colin Hinton (coming to the 121 Club with a fabulous quintet on November 15).


Devin Gray is a resourceful drummer. He spent the evening exploring his kit, striking and scraping rims, drum sides, hardware, skins and cymbals with brushes, hands, mallets, and sticks. The result was a cornucopia of textures that kept things fresh and dynamic. His rhythmic framing of each theme served as signpost for both bandmates and audience. Gray splits his time between New York, Berlin and Brussels, and his bandleading duties between Dirigo Rataplan (Ellery Eskelin, Dave Ballou and Michael Formanek,) Relative Resonance (Chris Speed, Kris Davis and Chris Tordini,) and Fashionable Pop Music (Jonathan Goldberger, Ferreira and Tordini.) Like all his peers, Gray has learned the multi-task dance, balancing writing, performing, practicing, traveling, booking, teaching, promoting, and eating.


Gray has long history with Ballou, whom he met as a 14-year old at the Maine Jazz Camp, and Ferreira, but this was their first go as a trio. They performed at the Red Room in Baltimore on Friday and were recording in Brooklyn on Sunday. Then Gray is off to Europe to inject more energy into the incredible morphing machine we call jazz.

Marty Ehrlich, extraordinary reed player, music scholar, storyteller and friend, returned to the Connecticut River Valley on December 16 to perform with his trio at the Blue Room in Easthampton, MA. T

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