First impressions can sometimes be deceiving and should sometimes be ignored; otherwise one stands the risk of missing out on something greater. The first couple of tracks on Cologne
clearly have their roots in the work of Bill Evans, specifically his trio with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian. Bassist John Goldsby's playing stands out with the same kind of high-end lyricism as LaFaro, and demonstrates a similarly playful intuitiveness. Peter Erskine, one of the few drummers on the scene who seems able to fit into any
context, is equally empathic, exhibiting the same penchant for colour as Motian. And pianist Bill Dobbins' richer sense of reharmonization is clearly rooted in the Evans landscape.
But get past the lithe "While We're Young, the harmonic reinterpretation of "Danny Boy, and the Latin-informed "Sergio, and the music opens up to broader possibilities. The general approach remains faithful to the spirit of Evans' trio, but it goes to places freer and more distinctly modern.
Recorded in one day in the midst of the German WDR Big Band's Erik Satie project, where Dobbins was the arranger/conductor, one suspects the WDR sessions had more than a little to do with the Erskine composition "I See England, I See France, which cleverly blends a certain British majesty with changes drawn from all three of Satie's Trois Gymnopedies. Dobbins' "Evan's Dance is a light samba that highlights Erskine's light textural approach. With less subtlety things could assume a more rigid and assertive stance, but Erskine's delicate touch and perfectly placed accents, never taking away from a tune's forward motion, contribute to the overall elegance of the entire set.
From there things begin to veer left, first with the appropriately titled Goldsby piece "Jog Left. The opening moments of the tune have the sort of suspended feel of Herbie Hancock's "Maiden Voyage, but the harmonies quickly turn darker before the theme resolves with a unison line from the piano and bass that under other circumstances might be considered funky, but here remains elegant and understated.
What comes first as a surprise, but then ultimately makes perfect sense within the broader arc of the set, are the three group improvisations. "Free Ballade is a dark and brooding tone poem that expands into the kind of territory that pianist Marilyn Crispell has recently been mining on ECM recordings like Storyteller. Again Erskine's reverence for Motian is clear as he leans towards colours and shades rather than overt rhythms. Goldsby and Dobbins are both inventive, creating small motifs that give the piece a truer sense of composure and composition. "Tree is even more darkly hued, while "Oh finishes the album off on a postmodern swing that revolves around Goldsby's insistent bass line and Erskine's integrated call-and-response with Dobbins.
Erskine is inarguably the most widely-recorded and best-known of these players, but this is clearly a meeting of equals, and it may be the best trio context Erskine has been in since his mid-'90s ECM work. Hopefully this meeting will be more than a one-time affair.