By Nick Benoit
From the very first phrase, a quick horn line up front, the new single from New Orleans-based saxophonist Trevarri grabs your attention, and never lets go. Looking at “Dancing With The King” as a whole, one gets a sense simultaneously of the more contemporary sound of groove-oriented jazz music, the 90s era young lions that toed the line between neo-soul and the straight ahead revival, and their mutual influences: the musicians from the 60s and 70s that were innovating propulsive modal improvisation. Formally, although rooted in jazz, the song strays quite far from it; while the head-solos-head format typical of the style is present, it’s in an abstracted form, bookended by non-repetitive gestures and developed such that the energy stays consistently high without becoming stagnant, thanks to some tasteful shifts in groove, texture, and instrumentation throughout. The production choices here really help set the mood, emphasizing the lower register and overall inertia of the piece: the rumble (but not muddiness) and synchronicity of the bass and bass drum, and the forward momentum of the percussion. This helps conjure the tone that the title suggests; although not danceable à la modern pop music, this sound palette really does help paint a sonic picture of the dancing king Trevarri intends to evoke, an aural representation of the provocative artwork for the single.
The track covers a lot of stylistic ground, from funk and boogaloo, to swing and afro-cuban grooves, all tinged with the familiar New Orleans feel courtesy of up-and-coming Louisiana native drummer Willie Green (who, incidentally, is in need of a prefix to distinguish him from local legend Mean Willie Green. Safe money is on “young,” or “nice.” “Sweet,” maybe?) The drum groove up front almost feels like a cross between a New Orleans second line street beat and the Pan-African derived drumming that Elvin Jones propagated in his work with John Coltrane in the early and mid 60s, and the earlier groundwork of that style laid down by Art Blakey. It morphs throughout the piece, but consistently maintains its swing and momentum. The presence of the tambourine as an added percussive layer would be an eccentric choice were the single recorded most elsewhere, especially appearing and disappearing suddenly as it does, its ubiquity in the local street music a little overshadowed by the similarity of its rhythm here to its usage in rock and pop music from the 60s and 70s.
As reductive and easy to the point of laziness as it can be to compare and contrast artists to their evident influences and foils, especially in a world as dominated by larger-than-life figures and legendary titans as the tenor saxophone, it’s certainly helpful in contextualizing Trevarri’s music. In trying to avoid what to me seemed the obvious comparisons to John Coltrane and Michael Brecker, I think here is actually an interesting and telling exercise. The former is more evident in Trevarri’s phrasing and tone, and the latter more in the production, genre-hopping, and instrumentation choices, like extra percussion and electric piano. But deeper than that, the line between what’s superficial and what’s significant here is a bit blurred by history; Trevarri is directly influenced by John Coltrane and likely only indirectly influenced by Michael Brecker, but the shift from the darker static harmony of the modal A section to the brighter, more dynamic chords of the bridge, are not wholly unlike Michael Brecker’s “African Skies,” although the presence of McCoy Tyner on Brecker’s track certainly helps explain some similarities shared by all three artists. More still, the tracks may also share a similar conceptual genesis.
The notion behind the piece, in Trevarri’s words, is that “it’s about an African King bringing together the community [by] means of dancing,” and although not explicit, the implication of the simultaneity of might and approachability of the king seems to be a strong metaphor for both community solidarity and social mobility, as demonstrated in the concurrently playful and powerful performance, and the aforementioned gorgeous artwork for the single. Despite the musical and broader implications of a darker, more serious tone at times, the playful theme Trevarri is going for is sometimes obscured but never lost, and never more present than the almost whimsical upturn of the final note. Perhaps my perception of darkness runs parallel to the artist’s intent of the dancing king as a role model; not dark, but an implicit serious undertone about the strength future generations will require beneath the explicit carpe diem feeling of the present, and the exuberant accessibility of the king and the music. Trevarri, intentionally or not, comes across as the King he intends to encapsulate, communicating with well-versed and deserved authority, but also a message of benevolence, love and unity. With such a high density of information and emotion present in just the single, I know I’m looking forward to hearing the full album.