This is not your typical jazz trio date. Saxophonist Jerome Sabbagh and guitarist Ben Monder have an established musical relationship, having recorded two albums together already—2004’s North and 2007’s Pogo, both quartet sessions. On I Will Follow You (buy it from Amazon), they’re joined by drummer Daniel Humair. Almost as old as the other two players combined, Humair gigged with Dexter Gordon, Eric Dolphy and Bud Powell in the ’50s and ’60s, and has never stopped trying to move the music forward, as evidenced by his subtly imaginative performances here.
The pieces, all but one by Sabbagh with contributions from the other two, typically begin with simple, patient melodies, which serve as introductions to, but not platforms for, the improvisatory interaction among the three players. The absence of a bassist gives the music a slight tension, as though everyone’s on tiptoe. Sabbagh plays slowly, choosing his notes with care and letting them drift and slowly fill space; Monder frequently echoes him, most notably on “Comptine,” where he’s following the saxophonist’s lines note for note. When he’s soloing on his own, though, the guitarist gets quite skronky, sometimes reminding me of Bill Frisell‘s work with the Ginger Baker Trio, a group that rocked surprisingly hard when it wanted to. At no point does he let himself drift into conventional (read: boring) jazz chording, though the placid “La Fée Morgane” comes close, and Sabbagh’s slow, gentle ballad blowing doesn’t help matters.
Luckily, there are plenty of times on I Will Follow You where not everyone is playing at once. On “Rahan,” for example, Monder tears into a chunky solo that sounds like the grinding power chords of Blind Idiot God‘s Andy Hawkins, accompanied only by Humair’s forceful drumming. The older man’s approach is all kick and snare, with dashes of gently tapped cymbals here and there; he swings so hard, he practically rocks. It almost seems like Sabbagh is holding the ensemble back from going all the way out, because whenever he’s on the mic, things get much quieter and more placid; as he’s blowing a timid melody on “Haiku,” shadowed by Monder in jazz-guitar mode, Humair taps the cymbals and softly rumbles the toms, and I yawn.
Okay, not really. This group never does anything truly boring; even at their worst, they’re suspenseful, because by the album’s midpoint you know that whenever it’s quiet, something loud will soon follow.
This is a disc of finely crafted miniatures; 13 tracks in 43:53, only three pieces running longer than four minutes and one (“Come With Me”) not even passing the two-minute mark. Toward the end, Sabbagh finally gets riled up somewhat. “We Play, Then You Play” is a sax-drums dance reminiscent of John Coltrane‘s “Countdown,” with occasional heavily reverbed interjections from the guitar, rocketing out of the far left side of the stereo field. The disc concludes with the only track not composed by the members of the trio—a 2:31 run through the standard “I Should Care,” with Sabbagh blowing slow ‘n’ cool, Monder shimmering, and Humair dusting the drums with wire brushes. It’s a nice ending to a disc that has a lot of spiky peaks and surprisingly few valleys.