Over the past several years Mike DiRubbo has made engaging discs for the Criss Cross and Cellar Live labels. On Keep Steppin’ (2001), Human Spirit(2003), and New York Accent (2006), the young alto and soprano saxophonist distinguished himself in bands comprised of some of the cream of New York City’s straight-ahead players—Jim Rotondi, Joe Farnsworth,Mike LeDonne, and Peter Washington. One of DiRubbo’s strengths during two of these sides is navigating the strong, expressive accompaniment of pianists David Hazeltine and Harold Mabern.
The difference between Repercussion, DiRubbo’s most fully realized work to date, and its predecessors stems from a change in instrumentation. Steve Nelson‘s vibes take the place of the piano. Nelson’s style of comping is minimal in comparison to Hazeltine or Mabern. The firm but not particularly busy support of bassist Dwayne Burno and the late drummer Tony Reedusleaves additional room for DiRubbo to maneuver. Not unlike Jackie McLean(a former teacher and formative influence), his calling card is a tart, high voltage tone which makes every utterance sound essential.
DiRubbo’s primary thrust as a soloist is juxtaposing exquisite improvised melodies and edgy, run-on phrases. Rapid changes in velocity and dynamics are not contrived or carried out for dramatic effect. DiRubbo often leans into a phrase, draws it out, and then without losing continuity, rapidly scampers away. He judiciously spreads out ideas over the course of an entire solo. The saxophonist’s relationship to the rhythm section is one of the most satisfying aspects of the record. He’s at home with whatever kind of spin they put on the music and never attempts to force his way out of any particular groove. At the onset of his “The Duke” solo, for example, while they’re locked into an easygoing holding pattern, DiRubbo’s phasing becomes uncharacteristically relaxed and snaps back into place when the pulse is explicitly stated.
The leader’s seven choruses on the title track are a shrewdly structured mélange of contrasting elements. For the most part DiRubbo is emotionally direct, putting an idiosyncratic stamp on blues locutions, and deftly moving from keening cries to swirling, rapid fire runs. In the end, however, it’s the care he puts into sculpting every phrase and the architecture of the solo that makes the biggest impression.
DiRubbo’s improvisation on his composition “Highbridge Lullaby” is unlikely to lull anyone to sleep. Two choruses contain some of his most lyrical playing of the set, and the characteristic edge is still present. Not unlike a figure skater who executes triple and double axel leaps in quick succession, during the second chorus he unleashes a spinning, barbed run that gradually comes to a halt; and then rises again with another one that is shorter and more densely packed than the first.
While Reedus’s drums burst all around him, DiRubbo presses forward throughout a long, bruising workout on his Jackie McLean-influenced “Nelsonian.” His smart, muscular solo is a long exhilarating climb. A couple of ragged, screeching interludes briefly veer off course without derailing the momentum. Some garbled lines are longer and don’t resolve as neatly as in other instances on the record.
Balancing the fire of his earlier work and the wisdom gleaned from over fifteen years in the trenches,Repercussion is DiRubbo’s breakthrough recording. The record is evidence that he’s developed into an exacting soloist who has something significant to say.