Adam O’Farrill’s Stranger Days 12/14/17 at The Jazz Gallery (by Kevin Sun)

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PERSONNEL: Adam O’Farrill (trumpet), Chad Lefkowitz-Brown (tenor saxophone), Walter Stinson (bass), Zack O’Farrill (drums)

SET LIST: Stakra (Ryuchi Sakamoto), Inner War (Adam O’Farrill), Ducks (O’Farrill), El Maquech (Mexican traditional song), Sunset (Kenny Dorham), Greed (O’Farrill), Steel Ghost (O’Farrill)

HIGHLIGHTS: The band modulated seamlessly between loose and tight song after song and within songs: hypermodern, semi-illuminated rhythmic forms with skeletal harmonies that morphed into freewheeling swing and back again.

Trumpeter Adam O’Farrill’s Stranger Days, his chordless quartet and chosen compositional vehicle of the past few years, has developed an ensemble sound where maintaining restraint and control through formally treacherous terrain is a recurring dramatic conceit. The band makes difficult music sound easy.

Stranger Days conceals the seams of its original music by selectively withholding information such as notes in a chord or subdivisions within a rhythmic frame, and the overall effect is to maximize both mystery and tension. Trumpeter O’Farrill and his front-line partner, saxophonist Chad Lefkowitz-Brown, are as comfortable holding down incantatory, repeated figures as they are playing heroic solos; fortunately, O’Farrill errs on the side of restraint, opting to share the spotlight with bassist Walter Stinson and drummer Zack O’Farrill, a rhythm duo whose collective knowledge of musical traditions—including mainstream jazz, Afro-Cuban music, and various streams of Black American music—allows them to shapeshift at will between disparate (or not so disparate) feels.

On “Inner War,” composed by the leader during a period spent working on a farm in Maine in summer 2017, Stinson alternated between explosive, improvised arco passages behind the horns—a blurred, fast-moving wall of sound—and a grooving, repeated bass line. On “Ducks,” a creeping 15-beat composition whose ingenious bass figure suggests both duple and triple meter depending on the drum phrasing, the horns conjured tense, fluttering textures hovering in the ensemble’s mid-ground (O’Farrill even used a Harmon mute as a plunger, creating a novel metallic sound, like raindrops on a tin roof).

The futuristic sophistication of O’Farrill’s original material calls to mind the work of recent innovators like Steve Lehman and Rudresh Mahanthappa, but the band shined equally on arrangements of traditional music from Veracruz and compositions by Ryuchi Sakamato and Kenny Dorham. On “El Maquech,” O’Farrill and Lefkowitz-Brown took their most discursive, unpredictable solos; at one point, a hushed double-tongued passage during the trumpet solo erupted into an extended burnout-like episode, with drummer O’Farrill goading Stinson on with a series of rhythmic gambits that led the bassist to adopt a three-repeated-notes-to-a-bar pattern—an unexpected echo of Walter Page recast in a late 2017 improvised music context. Despite the popularity of the chordless quartet context in recent years, Stranger Days stands out as one of the most compelling explorations of the format, balancing the ensemble essentials of looseness and tightness through carefully designed compositions and the complementary personalities of its band members.

— by Kevin Sun