November 2012: Three Blind Mice
November 29, 2012
Although the classic organ trio format has been popular within the jazz tradition since the hard-bop era, it has not always been known for creating adventurous new material. Organ trios are instead known for their soulful grooves, straight-ahead readings of jazz standards, and an intent focus on the blues. Three Blind Mice, a Philadelphia-based trio consisting of organist Lucas Brown, drummer Wayne Smith Jr., and tenor saxophonist Victor North, has developed a lengthy book of original tunes and a style geared towards preserving jazz tradition with an updated aesthetic. The trio's The Outsider (Three Blind Mice, 2010) features entirely original compositions save vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson's "Isn't This My Music Around Me." In a city where original jazz is rare and longstanding working groups are hard to find, Three Blind Mice has created a successful niche for itself. With a continually developing sound and expanding repertoire, the band seems to have no shortage of musical ideas with which to explore its ideas as freely as possible.
It was fairly obvious, in performance, that Three Blind Mice was not concerned with simply reproducing the classic sounds of organ trios led by pioneers such as Jimmy Smith or Jack McDuff. This was best exemplified by the group's emphasis on original compositions, which drew on influences from across the jazz tradition's entire spectrum. One of the show's highlights was an infectiously energetic reading of North's opening title track to The Outsider, a simple, hard bop-inspired up tempo burner which seemed to energize and encourage lengthy improvisations from everyone in the band. North's style seemed to pull much inspiration from saxophonist John Coltrane, in terms of vocabulary and tone. North also occasionally switched to soprano, his style once again recalling Coltrane's work with his classic quartet. North seemed more reserved against Coltrane's comparatively aggressive explorations, but the influence was, nonetheless, clear from the first few notes.
Brown's straight-eighth "Sometimes" featured North's soprano work, the saxophonist's tone unwaveringly clear, using vibrato very sparingly. Although North's lines demonstrated a thorough study of hard bop greats such as Hank Mobley, his sound and articulation placed him in a slightly more modern school of players. His improvisations avoided the use of predetermined licks, instead developing logical ideas over the course of an entire solo rather than simply outlining chord changes.
Brown was also featured with a lengthy solo on this tune. For the past several years, he has been studying classical organ works as much as jazz, now seeming to inform his playing. Whether he was improvising or comping behind North, Brown never failed to provide authentic bass lines. Although organists are often expected to play bass lines, Brown's left hand work was far more advanced and intricate than the norm. The coordination and physical independence needed to perform Bach chorales is equally useful for walking bass lines while soloing or comping for another soloist, and Brown has clearly used his formal training to bring his jazz playing to a highly developed level.
While North and Brown serve as the compositional masterminds for the trio, the sound of the band was, perhaps, most centered around Smith Jr. His style was the most modern-sounding, and his intricate yet flawlessly crisp approach pushed the whole band to a much higher level of energy and interplay. Smith appeared to be completely relaxed while playing, as if everything he played had been rehearsed and worked out down to the last detail. While this is obviously not the case, his conviction with regards to his own playing was undeniable.
Smith proved an intent listener, often using rhythmic ideas pulled from the current soloist to develop his own ideas. Rather than simply echoing a soloist's idea, Smith instead played back ideas he heard within his own grooves, creating a layered sound full of natural polyrhythms and tricky syncopated figures. Perhaps the most unique aspect of Smith's drumming was his ability to develop musical suggestions made by a soloist and then make them part of the overall swing feel. Smith can sometimes sound like more than one drummer, with one focusing on the groove and the other developing the soloist's ideas. This style is even more unique within the context of the organ trio, where drummers often stick to laying down a groove or simply swinging behind a soloist. The modern sound of Three Blind Mice simply would not have been as solid or convincing without Smith's energy and endless rhythmic ideas.