Drummer Devin Gray isn’t at a loss for words. During an hour-long chat prior to his appearance at a recent Out of Your Head night at the Windup Space, words fly out of the mouth of the Brooklyn-based, Peabody-educated Maine native like water from a spigot. They rush in short blasts of strong emotions. They flow in circuitous, long-gestating ideas that circle their eventual destinations like a curious tourist eyeing a roadside attraction. They spray off in impulsive tangents. And sometimes they come simply because arriving at the right word involves a bit of a search.
Case in point: Two days prior to this weeknight chat Gray saw the Craig Taborn Trio at the Village Vanguard, a group that includes Gray’s New York mentor, drummer Gerald Cleaver. The Taborn trio had spent two weeks in Europe and returned to Manhattan for six nights at the Greenwich Village institution. Gray caught all six nights. And he’s still looking for the right way to describe its effect on him.
“They were playing so, I hate to use the word ‘mature,’ but it was just, like, there was no BS,” Gray says. “I don’t even like to say it like that. It was just so musical and creative all the time that I went to play drums after watching that, and I was just like whoa—what did I just experience?”
At 28, the compact Gray barely contains his youthful, restless energy, and a concluding, reflective rhetorical question is an indication that he’s a young artist still figuring things out. What makes Gray a bit exceptional is that he’s very aware that he’s a young artist still figuring things out. He understands that he’s only been thinking about what “his” music sounds like for a short time. He knows it took him a few years just to figure out how to live in a city as big and alive as New York. He knows he’s still figuring out how to be a professional musician, somebody who makes money—or struggles to make money—only via music. And he knows he’s barely scratched the surface of what’s going to evolve into his career.
That thoughtfulness appears all over Dirigo Rataplan (Skirl Records), his debut recording as a bandleader. Gray reveals a refreshing appreciation for subtlety and nuance, from the minimal trumpet and sax lines dancing through “Quadraphonically” to the peppery melody that propels “Talking With Hands” along its casual hustle pace. Dirigo is an album with a healthy respect for spaciousness, confident in its ability to tell a story in a few notes rather than over share with too much information.
It helps that joining Gray are three veterans, some of whom Gray met during his time in Baltimore. He studied under Michael Formanek at Peabody, and the bassist very early on calibrated Gray’s mind to start thinking about how to live as a working musician. Gray came across Ellery Eskelin, who formally studied at Towson in the 1970s while gaining a more pragmatic education in Baltimore’s long-gone jazz haunts, when the now New York-based saxophonist came down for a gig at the Red Room with his incendiary trio.
Gray met trumpeter Dave Ballou when he was a 15-year-old self-taught drummer attending a Maine jazz camp where Ballou was on staff. After Ballou joined the faculty of Towson University in 2004, Gray started a trio with Ballou and Formanek that held down a semi-regular gig at Xando’s coffeeshop in Charles Village.
Gray’s first stabs at writing for a group were with that trio. “I was not a good writer when I first started writing for them,” he laughs, and admits he went to graduate school at the Manhattan School of Music in 2006 to improve—to force himself into a situation where he had to focus on his music. “When I went to grad school, I got better at writing because I really wanted to write,” he continues. “I need to write. And as a drummer, growing up only learning how to play drums, it’s been a really long road. It’s hard as a drummer because you’re not playing any of the notes. If you’re [saxophonist] Tim Berne, you play your melodies, that’s what people hear. That’s Tim’s music. My music, I had to find that place. I needed a voice.”
Gray sought his voice through New York’s musical life. He worked five-hour restaurant gigs playing standards. He started attending jam sessions where he didn’t know who was going to be there just to put himself into new situations with New York’s musician pool, which is no joke. “Manhattan was—I learned how to work with people more,” Gray says. “I learned more about music, because I was in all of these uncomfortable situations and people are damned good too. Damned good. I went there and I was like, ‘Oh fuck.’”
And he starting paying his dues by seeking out the people and players he admired. Cleaver was one, Eskelin another. “So I just started working with him, playing rehearsals, playing sessions, bugging him, playing chess—whatever,” Gray says of Eskelin. “I’m just like, ‘Man, I want to deal with you.’ I didn’t move here—I’m not starving and scratching and kicking and screaming for nothing. Because that’s the tradeoff—you’re here and you’re missing your personal life or anything for the music.”
He eventually found his voice through different ways: piano improvisations he recorded on his iPhone between the drum classes he teaches, or a video of his tapping feet. He demonstrates by tapping his feet on the floor at the bar. “But I wasn’t thinking about it,” he says. “I did three [videos], and I took the best one and wrote the piece for the band. And that one’s, like, this is Ellery”—here he points to his right foot—“and this is Dave Ballou [left foot], and then I wrote this thing, and Mike and I just kind of vibe off it.”
He emits a brief, knowing chuckle. “That’s part of the process,” Gray says. “And that process is so deep in any way you think about it. I do specifically remember Formanek telling me years ago, he’s like, ‘Yeah, man, you just need to chill out and let the process happen. That’s all it is.’ This is, like, one of my second phone conversations with him, and I’m like, ‘What is he talking about?’ And I had no idea. But now it’s like, Oh yeah—everything, every step [plays a role in the music]. I’m starting to view it more like that, living more like that. And I don’t know how to make music if it’s not coming from whatever it is that I do.”
the devin gray group plays a cd-release show april 22 at the windup space with dave ballou, ellery eskelin, and michael formanek.