The piano trio is the string quartet of jazz: a perfectly balanced structure, compact in scale but seemingly infinite in its possibilities. I’ve been mildly obsessed with it for the past few years, fascinated not just by its extraordinarily multifaceted history, from Teddy Wilson and Bud Powell via Herbie Nichols and Ramsey Lewis to the Necks and In the Country, but by the way it has so spectacularly mushroomed in popularity in recent years, resourcefully adapted by young musicians to express anything they feel like saying. The latest crop of piano-trio album releases is a good illustration of the scope the format offers, and the rewards it brings.
First among equals must be the interpretation of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring by The Bad Plus, the American group known for bringing elements of classical technique and structure to the format of the jazz trio. Ethan Iverson, the pianist, Reid Anderson, the bassist, and David King, the drummer, began working on their arrangement of the piece, originally written in 1913 for a Diaghilev ballet, while engaged as artists in residence at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina four years ago, inspired by the composer’s own version for two pianos.
When I’ve seen The Bad Plus, I’ve been impressed by the vigorous muscularity of their collective attack. They don’t lack subtlety or a sense of intellectual inquiry, but the sheer force is what hits you first. That certainly suits The Rite of Spring, whose jaggedly emphatic, almost barbaric syncopations, echoed in Nijinsky’s choreography, were surely what aroused the anger of the first-night crowd at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées just over 100 years ago. And The Rite suits the musicians perfectly. Improvisation isn’t the point here: this isn’t Jacques Loussier doodling on a Bach prelude. What they bring to the piece is a jazz-derived working method and a set of instrumental timbres and techniques that enable us to look at it from another perspective. If the individual playing is magnificent, the totality — enhanced by Anderson’s sparing and always effective use of electronics — is superlative. Here’s an extract.
In a note accompanying the version conducted by the composer with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra in 1962, Stravinsky described his reaction to that tumultuously historic first night but then added: “I remember with more pleasure the first concert performance… the following year, a triumph such as few composers can have known the like. Whether the acclaim of the young people who filled the Casino de Paris was more than a mere reversal of the verdict of bad manners a year before is not for me to say, but it seemed to me much more.” Those young people, and Stravinsky himself, would surely have admired this latest interpretation, released by Sony Masterworks.
Phronesis are one of Europe’s most stimulating young trios: the bassist Jesper Hoiby, the pianist Ivo Neame and the drummer Anton Eger gobble up time, changes and melody with a ferocious appetite for discovery. All three contribute pieces to Life to Everything (Edition Records), their fifth album, recorded at the Cockpit in London during last year’s EFG London Jazz Festival. In terms of awesome trickiness and unpredictability, this is the state of the art; only occasionally do I have the uneasy feeling that this music might, with the wrong kind of encouragement, head off in the direction of prog-rock. Here’s a two-minute film from that gig which perhaps shows what I mean. But they deserve the whoops they elicited from their audience last November.
Very different in tone is Le Vent, the second ECM album by the trio of the Swiss pianist Colin Vallon. Assisted by Patrice Moret on bass and Julian Sartorius on drums, Vallon explores a series of pieces notable chiefly for their pensive lyricism. It would be easy to dismiss this as superior mood music, the soundtrack to a day spent watching raindrops gather on the window of some European café, but Vallon is after something more profound, always calibrating the touch and weight of his phrases with great emotional precision, abetted by the sympathetic and imaginative work of his colleagues. Most of the dozen pieces were written by the leader, but here’s a track composed by Moret, called “Juuichi”.
GoGo Penguin are a young Manchester trio — Chris Illingworth (piano), Nick Blacka (bass), Rob Turner (drums) — whose music would fit in just about anywhere. They enjoy finding a groove, and they adore a nice chord cycle. You can feel the enthusiasm and the sense of self-discovery. V2.0 is their second album, released on the Gondwana label, and it will make them more friends. There’s not much depth to the music yet, but it will be interesting to see where they go. Here’s their film of a track called “Hopopono” (and I can’t help being amused by Illingworth’s resemblance to the young Manfred Mann, who would probably be doing something very much like this if he were GoGo Penguin’s age today).
Not surprisingly, some of the most adventurous piano trio music is coming out of Norway, and Moskus follow the example of In the Country, whose albums on Rune Grammofon and ACT I love. Moskus are Anja Laudval (piano), Fredrik Luhr Dietrichson (bass) and Hans Hulbækmo (drums), and their new album, Mestertyven, is their second for the Hubro label. Like its predecessor, 2012’s Salmesykkel, it’s distinguished by a mixture of seriousness and humour. They enjoy undercutting a simple tune with the occasional strange noise from the percussion department, but they never let silliness take over and some of the more intense pieces are exceptional. In the clenching phrases of the brief “Yttersvigen”, for example, you can hear how far one line of this music has come in a more or less straight progression from Bill Evans, Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian taking “Milestones” apart at the Village Vanguard back in 1961. You’ll find “Yttersvigen” among their Soundcloud tracks here.
So there we are: five very different ways of approaching a format that was once dismissed as fit for nothing but the cocktail lounge. The story of the piano trio goes on, seemingly without end.
* Darryl Pitt’s photograph of The Bad Plus performing The Rite of Spring for the first time at Duke University in March 2011 is taken from Do the Math, Ethan Iverson’s fine blog: http://www.dothemath.typepad.com