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So many trios, so little time

Trio Elf 2A few years ago, in response to a realisation that a phenomenon was under way, I reorganised my jazz CDs to provide a special alphabeticised section for piano trios. There were a lot of them, going back to Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans and incorporating Herbie Nichols, Elmo Hope, René Urtreger, Mike Taylor, Martial Solal, Howard Riley, Bobo Stenson and many others, and the number grew fast as the influence of Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau, the Necks, EST and the Bad Plus took hold on the younger musicians who formed trios such as Phronesis and GoGo Penguin. Like the string quartet in classical music and the two-guitars–bass-and-drums group in rock and roll, its components are held together in perfect structural tension and offer limitless flexibility.

But I’ve just spent two and a half days at the Jazzahead festival in Bremen, a sort of trade fair for musicians, managers, agents, labels and promoters at which the public can buy tickets for a series of showcase gigs, with each band strictly limited to a set of 30 minutes. Of the 17 bands I caught during those two and a half days, no fewer than eight were piano trios. It’s a format I love, obviously, but during that time my enthusiasm for the genre began to undergo a degree of modification.

I wouldn’t say this was necessarily the result of bad programming on Jazzahead’s part. A plausible case could be made that it simply reflects the response of young musicians to the demands of the market. But such exaggerated exposure to a single format did provoke the thought that many of today’s trios feel not just inspired but obliged to offer a different slant on a familiar set of tools.

In Bremen, the extremes of this approach were probably represented by Britain’s Elliot Galvin Trio and Germany’s Trio Elf. The brilliant Galvin, with Tom McCredie on bass and Corrie Dick on drums, opened and closed one of his sparky tunes with a doctored recording of a Punch and Judy show (as featured on his recent album, Punch). Trio Elf  –pictured above, with drummer Gerwin Eisenhower, bassist Peter Cudek and pianist Walter Lang — closed a set displaying an interest in hip-hop beats by inviting the audience to choose between covers of songs by Blink-182 and Kraftwerk for their last number (unsurprisingly, given the location and the median age of the audience, Kraftwerk won — the song turned out to be “Showroom Dummies”).

In between, stylistically speaking, came Finland’s highly creative Aki Rissanen Trio (with Antti Lötjönen on bass and Teppo Mäkynen on drums), the comparatively gentle modalities of the trio led by the Swedish drummer Emil Brandqvist (with Tuomas Turunen on piano and Max Thornberg on bass), and a set from Germany’s Lorenz Kellhuber (with Arne Huber on bass and Gabriel Hahn on drums) that seemed uneventful and subdued on the surface but slowly blended its undertows into a compelling mood.

The best of those I heard, however, was the most familiar: the trio of the German pianist Julia Hülsmann, with Marc Muellbauer on bass and Heinrich Köbberling on drums. Together for almost two decades, they treated us to material from their new ECM album, Sooner and Later, written and run during a recent world tour that included a visit to Kyrgyzstan, where a traditional song sung by a 12-year-old girl provided the melody for one composition. The mature, thoughtful music of Hülsmann’s trio is about substance rather than effect — which is not necessarily intended as a criticism of those who, in the fight to establish themselves in a competitive world, look to distinguish themselves through gesture.

I was momentarily disappointed when Hülsmann announced that she and her colleagues were going to finish the set with a tune by Radiohead, who are to today’s jazz musicians (and piano trios in particular) what Lennon and McCartney were to an earlier generation — a sub-phenomenon that was probably kicked off by Mehldau’s trio version of “Exit Music (For a Film)” almost 20 years ago. The decision seemed a little predictable. But then they turned “All I Need” (from In Rainbows) into something of such quiet poise, purity and radiance that any uncharitable thoughts I was beginning to entertain about the entire genre were instantly vaporised.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Bill White #

    Yet another interesting piece, much of it mirroring my recent thoughts on the ever more ubiquitous piano trio format. Many years ago I remember reading in some music publication the observation by a jazz pianist about how difficult it was to inject something new into the classic piano, bass, drums format. Then Now He Sings; Now He Sobs came out which I feel had a significant impact. However the importance and success of EST in more recent times has to account somewhat for the exponential growth of the format. Rather like yourself, my growing number of piano trio recordings caused me to adopt a new reference system. However, whilst I still definitely buy physical copies I now use a Sonos system at home and my new system has taken the form of a playlist called, ‘EST etc.’

    April 30, 2017
    • steve #

      Hi Bill, do you find the Sonos produces a balanced sound for streaming jazz? I have a Sonos Play1 which while giving a good deep sound for percussive music, isn’t especially nuanced for jazz, I find.

      May 3, 2017
      • Bill White #

        I have Play 5s in three rooms, one of which is linked to a Sonos playbar & Sub. Three other rooms which I use for listening far lass often have Play 1s. I am very happy with what I have for jazz, hip hop, r&b and contemporary ‘classical’ It’s quite a little way from the elaborate Linn hi fi I sold before going Sonos but the massive convenience of being able to access 3,500+ albums in my collection ripped to a NAS and the ability to stream (I use Deezer and subscribe in order to stream flac files) from the internet outweighs, for me, any drop in sound quality which with my ancient lugs, I would probably need to listen to side by side anyway.

        May 4, 2017
  2. Saverio Pechini #

    A piano trio sui generis like Keith Tippett’s Ovary Lodge still proves to be inimitable ,alas (or mercifully?)

    April 30, 2017
  3. Joe Daley #

    Thanks for another thoughtful (and thought provoking!) piece. A friend of mine once suggested that Bill Evans wrote the book on the piano trio format and that there was no reason to go anywhere else. Without wishing to take anything away from the achievement of Bill Evans, I agree with the comment that EST added a significant contribution to the understanding of this essential- and to my ears slightly mystical- format. I want to raise two o three cheers for Bill Charlap, the recordings he has made with Peter and Kenny Washington seem to me to honour the past of this format and push it to new heights of inventiveness. I mean, listen to how these players listen to each other!!

    April 30, 2017
  4. Richard Harris #

    Agree with all that and then there’s the sheer tedium and pervading influence of Bill Evans’ mid period. How many times can you do that same thing night after night? Why would you. But then there’s Paul Bley? And the Elmo Hope trio on Contemporary…Always Elmo. One of the very great trio records.

    April 30, 2017
  5. GuitarSlinger #

    As a Yank the thing that continually confounds me is ; For all the accolades EST received , For all the promotion the likes of Pat Metheny gave them ( Pat was who turned me onto EST ) and For all the critical acclaim they garnered across the spectrum … for some unknown reason they never really caught on here in the US . In my opinion yet another example of the logic of illogic in the market place .

    As for the Radiohead comment though good sir … seriously ? To put a point on it the depth and breadth of Radiohead’s music has no bounds leaving itself wide open to interpretations of all kinds including Christopher O’ Riley’s classicized arrangements .. the Punch Brothers incredible acoustic string instrument arrangements etc . Which is to say Mr Williams .. instead of reacting to the announcement that a band/artist is going to play their interpretation of a Radiohead tune with potential disdain and a ‘ here we go again ‘ attitude … try looking forward to see what depths of a Radiohead song the artist/group may be mining

    FYI ; As a musician.composer/arranger ( of a certain age in Boomer ) trust me .. the depths and breadth of Radiohead’s compositions far and exceeds anything ever written by Lennon / McCartney .. and lets be honest … George Martin

    May 1, 2017

    Like you, I love the jazz piano trio format but I know what you mean about its current ubiquity. That said, I can’t wait to hear a couple of forthcoming piano trio concerts in London. First, Brad Mehldau brings his trio to the Barbican in a couple of weeks. Mehldau was the jazz artist in residence at London’s Wigmore Hall a few years ago, and that perfect acoustic environment will host his latest successor in the role when Vijay Iyer’s trio, with Stephan Crump on bass and the fantastic Tyshawn Sorey on drums, play there in July; that should be one of the gigs of the year.

    I saw Julia Hulsmann in Berlin last November, when her trio was augmented by Tom Arthurs on trumpet and Anna Lena-Schnabel on alto saxophone; now that’s a band I would like to have a CD or an LP by!

    May 3, 2017
  7. John Blandford #

    Like you I felt that piano trios were over-represented at Jazzahead, but there is a formal application and adjudication process for the showcases, so presumably this was a reflection of the bands who applied. A more cynical view is that smaller bands tend to be cheaper to promote, so as you suggest the relative glut of piano trios may be a reflection of the jazz marketplace. But at its best it’s still a wonderful format and like other respondents I’ll be going to see Brad Mehldau in a couple of weeks time.

    May 4, 2017

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