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Trio Music Across the Generations
By Jeff Cebulski

Jazz trios abound. At one level, the most accessible, even the commonest jazzophile can grasp the interplay of three musicians. Because the playing material does not have to be particularly complex, trio music tends to lean upon “standards” that invite more pedestrian partisanship from patricians who are still pleased and perplexed by the slightest improvisation and call-and-response moments: people who wouldn't understand an Andrew Hill arrangement could really dig a Ray Brown Trio gig, no matter who was tinkling the ivories.

In the middle are jazz fans that wouldn't collect George Shearing but find Cecil Taylor inscrutable. The recent popularity of units like The Bad Plus has more to do with, I think, boredom with a typically non-creative cache of artists who cater to bourgeois tastes than to any perceived excellence.

The common set up of piano, bass, and drums hearkens ghosts of smoke-filled, glass-tinkling taverns where the music is merely a provider to background ambiance. But, among true artists, trios provide opportunities for improvisational challenge that is rooted in true jazz that encourages both teamwork and individuality. And I am happy to say that good, creative trio music that can be appreciated by a more selective audience exists. Four piano trio CD’s released in the past six months provide high quality in varying levels of style, approach, and cohesion.

The most traditionally performed involves three of the finest artists of the twentieth century­alas, one is now gone. The Great Jazz Trio’s Someday My Prince Will Come (Eighty-Eights/Columbia) is the last time we will hear the great Elvin Jones on drums on a studio recording. Jones’ polyrhythmic verbosity is modified here to correspond to the urbane sophistication of his brother, the eloquent Hank Jones, perhaps the most versatile and lyrical player of modern times. Along with Professor Richard Davis on bass, these brothers present what, on the outside, appears to be just one more collection of standard songs all jazzed-up. While that is true, the jazz of these people most always eclipses that of others. The late Jones and Davis have portfolios that include significant recordings with avant garde pioneers as they learned to stretch their senses of scales and beat beyond the mundane. When musicians like these return to the common fold, traditional jazz is always a bit deeper.

On Someday, Hank Jones is the leader, and his lyrical pianism provides a fulcrum that Davis and Elvin respectfully allow to rule. What makes this collection easier to listen to is Hank’s unceasing invention (that calls to mind the best of ‘Fatha’ Hines’ work) and ability to present contexts for welcomed embellishment by his compatriots.

One good example is the opener, “Caravan,” that allows Elvin to set the tempo in his own way, somehow involving tom-toms and cymbals as a percussion orchestra. Davis’ deep-toned accompaniment lays out the exotic feel as Hank provides the familiar melody. For a brief time, the trio settles into basic textures, until Elvin is given a solo that returns the unit to the aggression of the start, never to be left again. Even when the music turns back to the original theme, Elvin is all over his drum set, albeit with less volume than on, let’s say, A Love Supreme. Davis switches back and forth from common to doubled time…it’s a great four minutes with a song you’ve heard a thousand times before.

The second cut, the always wonderful “Softly As In a Morning Sunrise,” begins with Hank’s mid-tempo reading, leading to a series of notes that remind one of the great singer-interpreters like Sinatra who seem to find all the right ways to send a message. As with “Caravan,” Elvin is given a solo space. How can one play drums like a piano? Well, here he does. One begins to believe that the brothers could trade places without any diminishing blow.

As the album progresses, Hank’s ability to ride a beat and swing like hell becomes more and more evident. Davis finds places to demonstrate his own versatility. Elvin is, well, Elvin. Old songs become new. That’s the very best thing to say about this record.

The same can generally be said about any release from Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio that also features two recognized support players, bassist Gary Peacock and percussionist Jack DeJohnnette, who have extensive experience in alternative jazz contexts. Jarrett has pretty much eschewed his provocative progressive approaches that pushed jazz into both a World Music awareness and classical music attachments in favor of constant reformation of standard fare in an inexhaustible series of live releases for ECM, usually recorded in Europe or Japan, where the jazz audiences are, let’s say, more respectably behaved. While one always has to deal with Jarrett’s underlying ego, one cannot deny the results. Whisper Not, a two-CD release on ECM, was one of the great efforts of the early twenty-first century. This latest album, The Out-of-Towners (ECM), offers a side of the trio that seems more laid back, with breezier playing from the enigmatic Jarrett, who makes up his mind about his concerts on a day-to-day basis. The closest this reviewer has ever heard this trio's work to what this CD has was a concert in Chicago about six years ago, when he saw Jarrett actually smile and fraternize with his mates while playing an exquisite version of “Here Comes That Rainy Day” to a Windy City audience--on ­a rainy day.
The Trio obviously enjoys European audiences; The Out-of-Towners was recorded live in Munich in 2001, before 9-11, and the music exudes relaxation without a cloying patronization. Every album is a kind of suite that Jarrett threads together with various overtures and codas that occasionally serve as interludes­the jazz version of a symphony, in this case as close to a Silly Symphony as this group can get.

Jarrett begins this concert as always, with an improvisatory musing that serves as a bridge to his golden solo concerts of the seventies as well as to the first piece, “I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me,” played at a smooth, rapid tempo that could easily have been planned as a surprise challenge to his mates--­much like I saw in that Chicago concert­, withthe leader seeing if the others are up to the task. Peacock and DeJohnnette are. With Jarrett playing notes all over the keyboard and moaning his pleasure, the trio becomes a solid swing machine, unitary and cohesive, talking to each other as closely as two college students doing secret text messages in class.

In each concert, Jarrett presents at least one original piece. The title song seems cut out of Charlie Parker cloth in its rapid bunches of notes, but the juxtaposition of piano and bass symbolizes a conversation between two excited tourists wearing outdated garb and intending to be hip, leading to a Floyd Cramer-ish theme that suggests a kind of hick mentality. Its subtle humor, of course, would be hidden to the audience, who would be mesmerized by the couple’s interplay and harmony. Still, they swing, advancing one of Jarrett’s better compositions in a long time.

New compositions are the lifeblood of jazz advancement, and in the latest album by pianist Geri Allen, The Life of a Song (Telarc), we receive eight such pieces that evince the breadth of this seasoned but never boring artist. Along for this ride are DeJohnnette and the best bassist of our generation, Dave Holland. 

Allen is usually described as a hybrid of influences from her own generation, but that is an unfair label. The artist she most surely emulates is the exquisite McCoy Tyner, in that she exhibits invigorating compositional tropes that feed upon both domestic and foreign cultures, displayed with danceable rhythms and power chords. Even more so than Tyner, Allen’s ballads carry along a sense of urgency, never strident but insistent. As with her husband, the trumpet player Wallace Roney, Allen’s music is transparent in its cultural influences, and in Holland and DeJohnnette, she has two friends who are well versed in exotic motifs.

The themes of the songs are driven by Allen’s close connection to family and community, and the harmonies and modal melodies throughout communicate good vibrations. The opener, “LWB’s House (The Remix),” is a lively tribute to her children (“Remix” alluding to the addition more members to the “house”). With a lovely riff that suggests the dancing of children, Allen inserts more dissonant notes, perhaps to symbolize individuality in the midst of family harmony, a very African-tinged kind of communication. The profound beauty of the music carries on to “Mounts and Mountains,” where the instruments seem to emulate African strings, with Allen’s left hand and Holland’s right hand seemingly joined note for note in a lower registered sound poem. The brilliant bassist’s eventual solo sounds both deftly crafted from and impeccably intertwined with Allen’s thematic line. Their partnership here is something to behold.

The three standards included are all from classic pianist composers: Billy Strayhorn (“Lush Life”), Bud Powell (“Dance of the Infidels”) and Mal Waldron (“Soul Eyes,” played as a sextet with three added horns). As in the case of Jarrett’s trio, the expertise of the rhythm section makes these classics seem fresh. In the Powell tune, the tempo is taken down a peg, thus uncovering the richness of that song’s structure, allowing Allen to do her own version of Powell’s famous keyboard riding. DeJohnnette is the perfect foil for that kind of playing, seeing as Jarrett likes to do that kind of stuff all the time.

The teamwork that veterans like these achieve all the time is refreshingly presented by a new trio that, in terms of its provocateur and biggest fan, “sounds old.” Trio (ECM) is the first major release by the young Polish group that has accompanied the wizened trumpeter Tomasz Stanko on his last two albums. The three--­leader Marcin Wasilewski on piano, the steady Slawomir Kurkiewicz on bass, and the precocious Michal Miskiewicz on drums--­have earned rave reviews from a growing number of critics who hear wondrous things from such a young crew. This new CD should convince others, too, of their improvisational mastery and premature maturity.

Having learned the art of modal tonality from a master, the threesome demonstrate their collective education on thirteen pieces that flow together in a way reminiscent of the music on Stanko’s latest works.

The best way to imagine this group is to think of what the first Bill Evans trio would sound like today if they composed film music. One can almost feel Wasilewski thinking his way through every solo with painstaking clarity; yet, the rhythm section won’t let the music get bogged down in abstraction or sterility.

One characteristic that connects them to present day jazz approaches is the reimagination of modern rock. On Trio, that song is “Hyperballad,” from the alternative songstress Bjork. The opening notes reflect her culture’s inherent brooding before being uplifted into an upper registered melody by increased tempo, pushed by the fat tone of Kurkiewicz’s bass.

This trio has been clearly influenced by the airy, truncated approach of much of European chamber jazz. That’s why Kurkiewicz and, especially, Miskiewicz can be appreciated. Their sense of syncopation in the spaces between Wasilewski’s phrases keep the songs moving in thoughtful directions, pushing the pianist to move on to extended ideas.

But when the pianist has a clear melodic scheme, his lyricism forces one to stop everything and listen, as in “K.T.C.,” “Shine,” and “Sister’s Song.” On “Free-bop,” this group comes closest to what we hear with the best of Jarrett’s work, when the bass and drums come along for the leader’s ride through a countryside of scales.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 
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