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Altoist Lee Konitz, who gets top billing on this record, has a sparse, cryptic improvisational style that lends itself well to the left-of-center, quasi-free aesthetic favored by bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Paul Motian. Recently Konitz led a very different, yet equally provocative, trio project with Brad Mehldau and Charlie Haden, which resulted in two live albums for Blue Note. This time there’s a drummer, no piano, and a bassist who couldn’t be more unlike Charlie Haden. In addition, unlike the Blue Note trio’s exclusive focus on standards, most of the program on Three Guys consists of originals. Konitz’s distinctive voice is there, but we hear it against a background of very different moods and colors.
Konitz’s "It’s You" opens the album cleverly: Each player takes a 32-bar unaccompanied solo before all join in together, making the moderate swing tempo explicit. Konitz also contributes "Thingin’," based on the chord changes to "All the Things You Are," and the final track, "A Minor Blues in F." On both the opener and the closer, Swallow and Konitz play weaving eighth-note melodies in unison, but their execution could be tighter — toward the end of the blues cut they even run off the rails at one crucial point.
Swallow penned the well-known and beautiful "Eiderdown," as well as "Ladies’ Waders," a medium swing tune that might be based on a standard. The simple, rubato lyricism of the two Motian compositions, "From Time to Time" and "Johnny Broken Wing," brings to mind the Motian/Frisell/Lovano trio. Swallow’s chordal, guitaristic approach to the electric bass makes this association even stronger. Two non-originals are also featured — "Come Rain or Come Shine" and Jobim’s pretty "Luiza." Swallow’s tasteful accompaniment on the latter is noteworthy.
A collaboration between these "three guys" seems natural, and so does the overall concept of the record in light of recent projects they’ve each undertaken. Swallow is a member of Motian’s Electric Bebop Band, for one thing. Both Konitz and Motian have been exploring permutations of the trio concept, the former with Mehldau and Haden, the latter with Gary Peacock and Paul Bley. In addition, the standards-oriented material on the disc recalls Swallow’s whimsical yet inspired reworkings of standard repertoire on his two brilliant albums for the Xtrawatt label, 1994’s Real Book and 1996’s Deconstructed.
But despite the compatibility and heavy-hitter status of the three guys, some of these performances have a thrown-together quality. The idea, I’m sure, was to keep it loose. But at times it’s a little too loose.