Gregg Bendian's music is as diverse as they come, so nothing about the percussionist should ever really be a surprise. Between pedal-to-the-metal fusion-making with his Mahavishnu Orchestra tribute band, Mahavishnu Project
, reinventing John Coltrane's Interstellar Space
with Left Coast guitarist Nels Cline, collaborating with ex-Pat Metheny Group drummer Paul Wertico on exploring the outer reaches of free play with guitarists Metheny and Derek Bailey, and the free-meets-progressive rock leanings of his own Interzone
band, Bendian's career has been defined by its inability to be pigeonholed. And so, while this reissue of '99's Balance
featuring his Trio Pianissimo (alongside pianist Steve Hunt and bassist John Lockwood) might seem an odd step for a less intrepid artist, for Bendian it somehow makes perfect sense.
If there's any surprise on the album, it's Hunt, who is perhaps best known in progressive/fusion circles for his work with guitar legend Allan Holdsworth and is also the Mahavishnu Project's keyboardist. But on Balance Hunt is heard exclusively on acoustic piano and he, like Bendian, is truly the sum of a myriad of individual parts that include hints of Thelonious Monk and Paul Bley, but also reach farther afield into a more European sense of abstraction, even nodding to composers like Anton Webern and Alban Berg.
A traditional piano trio might seem a safe harbour for Bendian, but throughout these eight original compositions there's the same sense of adventure and, to some extent, irreverence that imbues his other more extreme projects. "Doshi swings hard at times, but the rapid tempo shifts are the kind that could only be envisioned by someone who has studied hard at the schools of fusion and progressive rock. The jaggedly angular theme and bass ostinato of "Jill Cyborg are only starting points for more unstructured interplay, although everyone is clearly paying attention to each other as harmonic and/or rhythmic motifs emerge and are latched onto by all, only to dissolve and be replaced by new ideas.
But in many ways the ballads are the most revealing. "Silvia has its own kind of quiet charm, yet masks a deeper complexity where every subsequent chord in the song's progression leads logically, yet somehow unpredictably, from at least one note in the previous. "Krikor is a darker piece with precedence in the kind of piano trio aesthetic found on ECM releases like bassist Arild Andersen's The Triangle; the folkloric simplicity of "Homeland somewhat harkens back to pre-'90s Jan Garbarek.
Balance may deliver some surprises to those only familiar with Hunt's more fusion-oriented efforts, but ultimately it proves that growing up surrounded by a wealth of musical diversity, as Bendian has done, only results in a voracious musical appetite that sees all music as part of the same broad continuum.
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Personnel: Steve Hunt (piano); John Lockwood (bass); Gregg Bendian (drums).