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FLY – YEAR OF THE SNAKE / ECM 2235                                                        player

On its second ECM CD, recorded in New York last year and issued on the eve of a European tour, Fly continues to overturn and subvert the conventions of the sax/bass/drums trio. Mark Turner, Larry Grenadier and Jeff Ballard share freedom and responsibilities in a band of equals, which is never about soloist-and-accompaniment. Thoughtful rather than incantatory, yet with plenty of power in reserve, the trio’s music subtly interweaves improvisation and composition; there are some deep conversations, and reflections on jazz history, taking place inside it. All three members contribute original tunes to the album “Year of the Snake”, exploring as Ballard says, “the compositional possibilities for the group, with its particular formation and personnel.” Threaded through the programme are a series of five spontaneously created vignettes, “The Western Lands”:

“As all three of us originate from the western part of the US, specifically California, we hope that the music represents our feelings about this area of the world,” Larry Grenadier says. “It is a landscape filled with open spaces, amazing colors, and every possible variety of panorama: desert, mountains, the ocean. We can't help but be influenced by all of this in our music. We hope that the listener gets a sense of this as well. The title also refers to the idea of the ‘wild west’ where the rules haven't been written yet, anything is possible, and people go there to reinvent themselves.”

As Grenadier has explained, Fly was formed “out of a desire to share all the knowledge that we’ve accumulated separately and bring it together in this bare-bones format”. Fly’s unique approach to the pianoless trio, with its “selfless, collaborative spirit” (to quote Time Out NY), and its eclectic yet tightly focussed music, has since become a reference for players and listeners alike.

Mark Turner’s saxophone lines are at once carefully constructed, inventive and exploratory, and span the full reach of the horn. His control of the tenor sax’s altissimo register is especially remarkable. So is the way in which his playing on “Year of the Snake” contrasts with the extroverted approach exhibited on the recently released “All Our Reasons” by the Billy Hart Quartet: Turner is clearly giving much thought to context. The work is not about transferring a single soloistic method from one band to another; Fly has its own ensemble identity, well-served by each of the players. The saxophone’s simmering intensity beneath a seemingly cool surface is mirrored by Jeff Ballard’s drumming, as constantly changing rhythm patterns draw from a variety of drum traditions in jazz and beyond, emphasizing and stretching and dissolving the time. Larry Grenadier often engages with Turner into a lively play of roles, answering the tenor’s lines with counter melodies, or, increasingly, using the bow to play unisons with the sax. Grenadier’s arco playing “gives Fly an added dimension”, Jeff Ballard says. “I think the group sounds bigger now.”

It was Ballard who founded Fly, during a period when the drummer was working with Chick Corea. The obvious empathy between the trio’s players caught the attention of Brad Mehldau, who promptly engaged Grenadier and Ballard as his own rhythm section. For the last eight years, drummer and bassist have commuted between the two bands, further honing an already profound musical understanding.


Mark Turner was born in Fairborn, Ohio in 1965, and moved with his family to California when he was four. He started playing clarinet at nine then later switched to alto, then tenor as a teenager. Since moving to New York, he has worked and recorded with musicians including Kurt Rosenwinkel, Dave Holland, Paul Motian, Brad Mehldau, John Patitucci, Dave Douglas, Billy Hart, Lee Konitz, Tomasz Stanko, the SF Jazz Collective and James Moody. Turner is on dozens of recordings as a sideman as well as five of his own recordings. Other ECM appearances include “New York Days” with Enrico Rava and “All Our Reasons” with Billy Hart, Ethan Iverson and Ben Street.

Larry Grenadier was born in San Francisco in 1966. He began playing bass when he was 11, and as a teenager worked in the Bay area with Joe Henderson, Stan Getz, Bobby Hutcherson among many others. After playing with Gary Burton's band in 1990, he moved to New York City and played in the groups of Betty Carter, Joshua Redman, Danilo Perez, Tom Harrell, Joe Henderson, John Scofield, Pat Metheny, Paul Motian, Charles Lloyd and Brad Mehldau and recorded dozens of albums. Previous ECM credits include albums with Enrico Rava and Charles Lloyd.

Drummer/percussionist Jeff Ballard was born in Southern California in 1963 and grew up in Santa Cruz, where he began playing drums at age 14. He toured with Ray Charles from 1988 through 1990. Jeff moved to New York in 1990, and since then has played and/or recorded with Lou Donaldson, Chick Corea, Buddy Montgomery, Mike Stern, Danilo Perez, Pat Metheny, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Joshua Redman, Enrico Rava and many others. Recent recordings include the Brad Mehldau Trio “Live”, “Metheny/ Mehldau” and Joshua Redman’s “Momentum”.

“Year of the Snake” was produced by Manfred Eicher at New York’s Avatar Studios in January 2011.

© Studio Svengali, September 2018
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