It's hard to put the finger on what makes for a successful piano trio set. Some of jazz's bona fide great keyboard players turn in less than inspired efforts, sets that just don't hold the listener's interest for the duration of an hour of music. It's probably the worst critism that can be made of a recording – that it just doesn't hold interest. And the piano trio format can be particularly unforgiving.
And having said that, the other side of the coin is that occasionally you'll come across virtual unknowns, coming at you from out of the blue, who turn in a engaging and delicious set of sounds with just a piano, bass and drums. Such is the case with the Upper Left Trio's Cycling.
Aside from the fact that the musicians – drummer Charlie Doggett, pianist Clay Giberson, and bassist Jeff Leonard – are based in Portland, Oregon, I know nothing of them, except that they've come up with a forward-looking, sit-on-the-edge-of-the-listening-chair set of songs for this set.
So what's it take to do that? What's this trio bring to the table that facinates and engages?
One, the guys all write, always with strong melodies. Two, Doggett, in addition to being a fine timekeeper, is adept at adding a weave of textures without overdoing it. Three, Leonard, on the electric bass here, makes good and subtle use of sustain – making him sound at times almost as though he's bowing an accoustic bass, with a rich dark wash behind the textures. Four, piano man Giberson is a skilled young musician with a constant flow of ideas. For comparison's sake, think Brad Mehldau, with a more outgoing and maybe more urgent approach.
Also – and this is critical – the bass/drum team rides along a notch or two above the accompanist's or supporting role, full-fledged members of the musical team.
Strong melodies are a central strength of Cycling, but oddly (with that thought in mind), my highlight is drummer Doggett's "Simplicate" the song with the most classical, ethereal, brooding feel to it. Another favorite is the spring-in-the-step "Funzies," with a bounce in the melody and some of the best trio interplay on the disc.
These guys are a real find. Just for the sake of argument I'd love to have heard a cover of a progessive rock tune (a la The Bad Plus) from them; but they really don't need it. They all write and play some very fine progressive tunes of their own.