It’s just so hard to label Jeff Cosgrove a drummer. It feels unfair. As he proved with last year’s fantastic “Alternating Current,” the guy reaches so far beyond the parameters of mere beats and time signatures and groove that calling him a drummer is barely the beginning. He brings so much more. A wandering mind. A musical taste. An improvised approach. An unwavering fearlessness. Giving his recordings a listen means something far more than entertainment; it means a journey.
That’s probably why his most recent set, “Conversations With Owls,” feels like the perfect companion piece to the drummer’s aforementioned “Alternating Current,” 2014’s three-song set that featured an opening track doubling as a master class in improvisation, it running for nearly 40 minutes. That same excitement and complexity is here; it’s just toned down enough to make the end result seem more welcoming than its predecessor.
A leading example: Who could have thunk that someone like Cosgrove would dream up a performance that ultimately stumbles upon structure, if only for a momentary few measures? But that’s what happens with “Stacks Of Stars,” the record’s most invigorating track. Eased in with the help of Wind’s bass plucking its way through the first minute-and-a-half, things pick up when the trio’s leader begins rolling through his cymbals, setting the stage for what becomes an explosion of eerie aggression with Kimbrough’s ominous keys. Before you know it, the repetition sets in and (gasp!) a mildly funky blues groove steps forth, however fleeting it may sound.
But don’t let that fool you: It’s not all fun and framework all the time. Opener “The Owls” is a beautiful piece of piano balladry that ought to soundtrack the warmest of rainstorms. Adding to the comforting texture is the presence of Cosgrove’s light mallet work with this tom-toms, an approach he loves accentuating with intricacy and taste. Sure, Kimbrough leads the way, but without the pitter-patter backing that the drummer’s spur-of-the-moment runs provide, the performance would almost entirely lose its mood.
Speaking of mood, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic “My Favorite Things” gets the type of makeover that would make even RuPaul blush. The most inventively dour of the bunch, the cover is brilliantly sad, a spirit that springs to life with Wind’s bass soloing in its middle section. There’s great interpretations and then there’s p:BCR Body Copy RRgreat interpretations. This one’s the latter. Less cynical, yet more emotive, is the touchy take on Gershwin’s “I Loves You Porgy.” Feather light and sourly sparse, it’s a fantastic showcase for Kimbrough’s impressive knack for subtlety.
All of this revolves around the set’s cornerstone, “Excitable Voices.” At 8:37, it bursts with energy, each player using every bit of their respective weapon to wage a war on the conventional. If these sessions were supposed to embody the conversations musicians can have with each other through their instruments, you’ll find no better dialogue than the one that exists here. Inspired to the core, “Voices” gives room for each member to highlight their musical chops, Cosgrove, himself, eventually running through his kit with incentive and vision. Understand it or not, you have to respect the passion with which each man plays.
The only thing to rival it is set-closer “The Shimmer,” which is one last shot of espresso that packs the punch of a prize fighter. A more condensed, more aggressive version of “Excitable Voices,” not once does it appear too busy or over-reaching. It’s a blast of energy, one final bow ensuring all listeners that they need not forget what just invaded their consciousness. Shaking it off is a stone-cold impossibility.
Yet that’s what Jeff Cosgrove typically does: He leads musicians through an invisible map of uncharted territory to a place that may never be visited again. It’s about the moment. It’s about the feeling. It’s about the connections. “Conversations With Owls” is the sound of three men uniting under the pretense that the only direction to go in is the one that adheres to an inherent lack of aim. It’s fearless, an exhilarating voyage with endless potential. You can listen to it 100 times, and it won’t be until listen No. 101 that you find a brand new passage to explore, a road intent on leading you to places you never even knew existed.
Or, in other words, when conversations promise this much fascination, who needs words to justify their existence?
*** 3 1/2 STARS OUT OF 4 ***