The Third Installment of Posi-Tone’s Out to Dinner Series Continues in the Spirt of Dolphy with “Episodes of Grace” (ALBUM REVIEW)

The third edition of Posi-Tone’s Out to Dinner series, Episodes of Grace, replicates the instrumentation in 2018’s inaugural Different Flavors with trombone, alto sax, vibraphone, bass, and drums. By now fans of the label realize that producer Marc Free assembled his artists for a four-five day stretch during the pandemic in August of 2020 and was able to produce four or five albums from those sessions. Episodes of Grace is one of them. The constants across all three Out to Dinner releases, including 2020’s Play On, which we covered on these pages, are vibraphonist Behn Gillece and bassist Boris Kozlov. Joining them here are trombonist Ryan Keberle, alto/soprano saxophonist Patrick Cornelius (who also appeared selectively on Play On), and drummer Rudy Royston, a mainstay on the label’s releases, who returns from the 2018 session. 

At the time of Eric Dolphy’s 1964 Blue Note release, his collaborative Out to Lunch, the piano-less quintet with an emphasis on collective harmony, was viewed as avant-garde. This same level of group interplay in the Out to Dinner ensemble is modeled in spirit on Dolphy’s concept, expressed in the liner notes of his iconic album where Dolphy stated that everyone was a leader in the group (as indeed each participant is a bandleader). Each has a strong presence, and no particular performer is singled out over another. Yet the emphasis here is more on finely honed harmonies and solos that lean much more toward the graceful, elegant style than the oft-aggressive Dolphy and Hubbard in the original. Relative to most of Posi-Tone’s offerings, one could consider Out to Dinner edgier but certainly accessible, shy of avant-garde by today’s standards. 

While Dolphy’ quintet featured the altoist paired with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, bassist Richard Davis, and drummer Tony Williams; the Posi-Tone series maintains the quintet configuration but, again, like on the first outing, replaces the trumpet with the trombone. With the exception of Victor Feldman’s “Joshua,” each member contributed a contribution, with Gillece weighing in with two.  His “The Last Corner” opens with ensemble playing that then opens for the composer’s brimming solo, followed by the expressive Keberle as the melody rolls smoothly, propelled by the consistently engaged and responsive Royston and Kozlov, who are seen more as equals rather than simply a rhythm tandem in this context.  The spirit of Dolphy is here from the outset, not a derivative sense but in terms of tight-knit interplay and the polyrhythmic approach. The spacious qualities of Royston’s title track allow for spirited takes from Gillece, Cornelius (on soprano) and the deep-toned Keberle.

The trombonist leads into Kozlov’s standout “We Create” in a jagged hard bop mode, before the bassist, drummer, and vibraphone toss around beats and harmonics playfully, making way for Cornelius’ fiery alto. Gillece’s “Precious Moments” begins as pensively as the title implies as his mallets create an atmospheric backdrop over which both Keberle and Cornelius float in unison while the steady Royston brushes delicately. Cornelius delivers a lush, ballad-like solo before the ensemble harmonically reprises the gorgeous theme.

Keberle’s use of the lower reaches of the trombone gives him a timbral quality that sets him apart from others who play the instrument. He also favors elongated melodic lines more than the short jabs common to others who play the instrument. Cornelius, who generally favors more bop-like lines, shows his versatility by playing in both styles. The harmony created by the two is on full display in Cornelius’ emotional, spacious “Hollow Men.” On the other hand, Feldman’s “Joshua” finds the unit swinging hard in post-bop mode, featuring Royston at his energetic best.  The set concludes with Keberle’s “Green Machine,” a piece alternating between ballad and mid-tempo with an especially passionate turn from Cornelius as Gillece’s crisp, bright statements and Royston’s stirring kit work links the altoist’s and Keberle’s flowing solos together before the group mounts yet another glorious ensemble exit. 

As if Dolphy and Blue Note co-founder Alfred Lion passed the baton to Posi-Tone’s Marc Free, this concept of group interplay works beautifully.  As long as the compositions maintain this high level of originality and quality, Out to Dinner will continue to have legs well into the future.

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