Yarmouth native Devin Gray got early inspiration to play the drums from next-door neighbor Tony McNaboe of Rustic Overtones fame. He received further direction from a musician grandfather and an impressive list of local teachers, not to mention the five summers he spent at the Maine Jazz Camp.

After appearing on a few recordings as a sideman or co-leader since graduating from the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, the 28-year-old Brooklyn-based percussionist is now ready to take the helm.

Gray’s new CD, “Dirigo Rataplan” (scheduled to be released on Tuesday) is a challenge as well as a real pleasure for the ears, and confirms that he is becoming a major musical force.

“Dirigo Rataplan” is a collection of compositions by Gray that furthers the free-jazz tradition that began more than half a century ago. Gray’s approach is summed up in his choice for the album title, which “denotes leading from the beat.”

The drummer’s quartet mates are first-rate improvisers with reputations already established on the international jazz scene. Ellery Eskelin’s sax work has gained notice in a variety of settings. Trumpeter Dave Ballou is no stranger to Maine stages, and memorably backed singer Sheila Jordan in Portland a few years back. Bassist Michael Formanek has lent his powerful sound locally in support of the likes of Tim Berne.

“Downtime” is the most accessible of the eight tunes on the disc, beginning with a funky figure from Formanek and soulful unison lines from the horns. Gray keeps things elastic, pushing and pulling at the beat. It’s hard not to dance to this one, but that gets tricky later as the bass pulls out and we get a more reflective passage. The groove does return, though, and all ends well on this excellent piece.

Gray has said that, being from Maine, he is very attuned to the sounds of nature. While technically sophisticated, his music does feel organic in the way he creates sonic environments. “Katahdin” starts as a vigorous march (or climb) with the leader keeping order as Ballou and Eskelin establish parameters before the trumpeter takes the lead over Formanek’s groundwork. Eskelin tries out another expressive path while Gray gets ever more active with insistent flourishes.

Perhaps the most formally impressive cut is “Prospect Park in the Dark (for Charles Ives).” Gray shows substantial compositional skills here with sections that feel like chamber music set against improvisational rumbles and tumbles among the foursome. Gray’s solo work on the cymbals is a highlight, as is the piece’s very Ivesian transcendence of categories.

Gray is working to line up some local gigs for later this year. In the meantime, check out this fine disc.


Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.