The title of this album, pianist Ron Surace's fourth for Chicago-centric Southport Records, sounds like a bad B-movie, a connotation Surace acknowledges with a grin: the cover art features the words digitally imposed on a downtown cinema marquee. And though it avoids the easy clichés and stiff performances found in a lot of second-rate cinema, the album is a Hollywood sequel to the first Trio City
, released in late 2001, in more ways than one. Bassist Tatsu Aoki and drummer Dave Pavkovic not only re-join the bandleader, but they do so for another session of standards (plus two original charts). To put it another way, having done well the first time around, Surace et al. haven't deemed it wise or necessary to alter the formula.
Tackling straight-ahead standards for the second time might sit well with the Saturday night piano bar crowd, but it can be a recipe for disaster when dishing out the same fare to jazz listeners who have repeatedly heard these tunes deconstructed and reconstructed, demystified and re-mystified. What a welcome relief, then, that this trio gives such a fresh treatment to these familiar tunes.
Surace's style, technically and expressively, is very similar to that of Bill Evans, though in the past many critics have made an equally strong case for Erroll Garner. "Image," one of the Surace originals, and "Until the Real Thing Comes Along" are particularly Evans-like in the sense that he judiciously plucks clusters of notes from a larger melodic pool on the fly. Sometimes he draws these clusters out for simple examination; sometimes he bundles them together in arpeggiated rolls and chordal flourishes. It's neither minimalist nor impressionistic nor baroque, rather a seamless conflation of the three. Surace understands the art behind pause and hesitation (so did Sinatra and Monk; less gifted musicians tend toward calculated, stop-start, seasick motions), as he demonstrates on these two tracks as well as "I'm Beginning to See the Light," "Deed I Do" and "Cabin in the Sky." Like Brubeck, he also enjoys testing the elasticity of a phrase, often while mid-swing.
Pavkovic's brushwork on "Caravan"most noticeable during his solois bell-clear and appropriately locomotive; Aoki's bass line is wriggling, snakelike. Together the rhythmic pair lay down the winding track on which Bill Evans' "Funkallero" runs. Caught up in the vitality and coherence of these performances, it would be easy to overlook the fact that the sound quality on Trio City 2 is utterly pristine.
Nitpicks? Trio City 2 is as long as Trio City. Seventy minutes. Concluding around "Sister Sadie" would still give listeners more than enough to enjoy and digest. But this seems to be complaining about too much of a good thing"good" in this case being a criminal understatement.