The Rick DellaRatta Trio starts off mellow at a crowded Catalina's on Saturday, St. Patrick's Day. DellaRatta's loud silk shirt and black fedora belie his gentle demeanor. He sneaks onstage and pedals softly.
"Kojo Notsuki," an original arrangement of a Japanese melody, opens the first set. DellaRatta begins in a pedal-happy Winston-esque prelude accompanied by Eddie Gomez' rich bass bowing, then with a sly smile introduces a more up-tempo left-hand rhythm that propels the band into the heart of the piece. A too loudly miked drumset mars this piece -- DellaRatta's playing could only be heard in the offbeats here, but this balance problem is fixed in time for the next number. Guest star Sonny Fortune jams on sax, making the most of an eighth-note hiccup motif which drummer Lenny White picks up on his solo. After thundering away over the din of patrons ordering drinks at the top of their lungs, White rolls away to nothing and sets us down gently on another melancholy bass bowing that ends the piece.
"Moon and Sand" features an electric-sounding Eddie Gomez. His accents give the other soloists something hard to push against, adding energy to the whole number. DellaRatta anticipates the beat, as if suffering from a likeable impatience to express himself. Here also we get to hear DellaRatta's voice for the first time. Although little could be made out of the words (I caught "lips sweet stars"), DellaRatta's voice has a soft and pure tone that is beautiful to hear.
Here, and on "How Insensitive," his American "arrr" and somewhat forced high notes reveal that this is not actually Jobim singing, however during the sustained tones it is easy to imagine it is He. DellaRatta's intonation is perfect, and he wonderfully recalls Jobim's intentional flatness that gives the notes a wistful falling sound. "Insensitive" also offers the best piano melody of the night, with DellaRatta lovingly ringing out the most essential notes. [Jazz Photo] During a Gomez spotlight, Lenny White's nicely tick-tocking rims neglect a beat, which leaves the bass solo sounding a little bare.
White's wirebrush, though, is an excellent soft accompaniment to "Ill Wind," an original tune from DellaRatta's new "Along Together" CD. Fortune and Gomez match note lengths as carefully as if they've played together for years -- fat and short, long and swelling, plucky and tart. And when Gomez walks his bass with DellaRatta's piano, the whole room syncs into the swing.
In general, the trio could benefit from more variety of feel; the tunes are taken from a variety of sources (bossa nova, original compositions, an Evans tune), but they share straight-ahead moderate tempos and dynamics. Despite this, the evening never slows down, and DellaRatta's multiple talents hold the audience's full attention.
Sonny Fortune bursts out with an especially good solo on the very swinging "Willow Weep for Me." He twists the sound and plays with the beat -- first emphasizing, then avoiding, and then lagging behind the 1234 drum. Whereas on the earlier numbers Sonny's runs tends to trail off awkwardly (as if he's out of ideas), here his fast runs end gracefully and convincingly. Fortune is a good choice for quartet -- his sound is round and solid but lets the piano come through.
The trio (plus one) is a well cast ensemble of talented musicians who bandleader DellaRatta showers with superlatives. Each player moves easily between comping and soloing, offering a unique personal style without any hint of arrogance. DellaRatta himself has an almost egoless stage presence; only his bright blue shirt and amazing musicianship keep him from fading into the background. Ears sticking out from a mop of hair, DellaRatta is a young man still finding his musical identity, but he's on the right track. His wide-ranging influences include Monk, Jobim, Van Morrison, and Evans -- an odd and wonderful mixture that ten years from now hopefully may distill into something both rich and unrecognizable.