A sense of humor is so lacking in jazz (and especially jazz writing) that when one does appear you almost don’t even know what to do with it. And the first thing you notice about Wolfwalk—the debut recording for this trio and the debut release for this label—is that, yes, right there on the cover, that is a photo of a scrawny white dude clutching two strips of uncooked bacon in front of his chest. OK . . .
The disarming insouciance continues on the recording. Seven tracks—two each from saxophonist Gary Thomas, bassist Joel Grip, and drummer Devin Gray, and one collective composition—swim through funky postbop (Thomas’ lithe “Who’s in Control?”), abstract canvases (Gray’s “Slow Bluuesss”), and buttery, fluttery ballads (Grip’s “Ingen Dalig Kappa Att Axla”). And Wolfwalk doesn’t suffer because of the wide palette.
Such a casual attitude pervades the entire recording and, you suspect, the recording session. Thomas is historically a muscular, courageous player willing to push both himself and extremes, and he hasn’t sounded so eager to play around the edges of straight-ahead jazz in years. His up and down cascades, darting runs, and witty figures play off and against the jittery drums and meandering bass in Gray’s “Used to Be (V+D),” which mines surprising joy out of three musicians exploring the same open-air park and only occasionally striding along the same path. A better group dynamic is forged on Grip’s “Gryphus Medley,” which might as well be an ecstatic, lurching march for a drunk wedding. Gray splashes around floor toms and cymbals as Thomas traces disappearing shadows through the air and Grip throws low-end frowns across the room until everybody finds the same knotty idea around which they wind themselves into a dizzying bad mood. And they’re still only two and a half minutes into this 12-minute workhorse, and Gray has yet to grow a third arm and bounce simultaneous snare rolls and high-hat chatter off Thomas’ serpentine runs and Grip’s quickened throb, which itself melts into that rarity of rarities: a bass solo you want to go on longer than it does.
Grip’s bass provides the spark that ignites Thomas’ stormy “Vanishing Time,” a smoldering setting for Thomas at his most economically eloquent. Grip and Gray mark a predatory pace, which picks up every so slightly as the track approaches its seven-and-a-half minute close, and Thomas steps right into the groove’s pocket and never leaves. It’s an emotionally lovely outing, recalling less the ardently intellectual players with whom Thomas is always associated and more the from-the-gut soulfulness of a Southern man like Wessell Anderson, Thomas playing with an earthy vibrato and rich, warm tone. It’s a classic-feeling song that doesn’t arrive with the past’s anachronistic dust when it hits the ears.