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3x3: Jazz Trios Playful and Pensive

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These three recordings... are a reminder that one of the most venerable formations in jazz continues to be a laboratory for innovation.
Can we finally retire the assertion that we are living in a Golden Age of the jazz piano trio? It seems like every month brings trio dates of such imagination and accomplishment as to render superlatives beside the point. These three recordings released in an eight-week period in Spring 2023 are a reminder that one of the most venerable formations in jazz continues to be a laboratory for innovation. Drawing from a kaleidoscope of tone and mood from playful to pensive, all are accessible, proving, as if it were necessary to do so, that the mainstream is a wide and powerful river fed by many currents.

Arturo O'Farrill
Legacies
Blue Note Records
2023

On the cover of Legacies, the late Cuban-born arranger and bandleader Chico O'Farrill sits in an easy chair in front of a classic AR-3 loudspeaker, his right hand upraised with a finger extended as if to conduct the record on the turntable nearby. On his lap sits a young man, presumably his son and namesake Arturo O'Farrill, who looks into the distance. Is the boy listening to the music? On the evidence of this recording, the answer is yes, and he is absorbing it deeply, too. Like his late father, Arturo O'Farrill is best known as a composer, arranger and bandleader, primarily with his Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, but in the press materials for this release, he said, "I have always been a jazz pianist first, and all that other stuff afterwards." Legacies is stirring proof of concept.

The composer credits on this nine-song, 48-minute set demonstrate solid jazz bona fides: Herbie Hancock (a Monkish "Dolphin Dance"), Thelonious Monk himself ("Well, You Needn't"), Carla Bley (the darkling "Utviklingssang"), Sonny Rollins (a puckish "Doxy") his father ("Pure Emotion") and Bud Powell ("Un Poco Loco"), which fulfills the promise of the title in a mad dash in clavé to the finish line.

On solo performances of Monk, Chico, Rollins and the ancient standard "Darn That Dream," O'Farrill code-switches between storming montunos, pumping stride-piano, wry lyricism and knuckle-busting Lisztian passagework (he was classically trained) with an effortless fluency not heard since Hilton Ruiz departed the scene. Bassist Liany Mateo is as adept at walking as he is with a tumbao rhythm and Arturo's son Zack O'Farrill is a whirlwind on drum kit. The legacy, it seems, is in very good hands.

Eric Reed
Black, Brown, and Blue
Smoke Sessions Records
2023

Where O'Farrill's recording is brashly extrovert, Philadelphia-born pianist Eric Reed offers a program of equally audacious intimacy on Black, Brown, and Blue. Ballads predominate on this generous 13-song, 68-minute offering, and while the titles are familiar, the interpretations consistently surprise. "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)" for once is the lament the title promises while Wayne Shorter's "Infant Eyes" unexpectedly and effectively tilts toward the blues. Buddy Collette's "Cheryl Ann" is a find and the quietly throbbing "Christina" will make you wonder why more pianists don't play this melting Buster Williams ballad. Reed takes Horace Silver's "Peace" at a Shirley Horn-like tread, but he sustains the line beautifully, and just to leaven the proceedings, Reed surprises by tagging it with a snippet of melody from Ornette Coleman's song by the same name.

Bassist Luca Allemano is deferential in the extreme and you might not believe that the drums can be played as quietly as Reggie Quinerly does here. The mood is one of intense inwardness, raptly sustained and rivetingly honest. The two vocal performances are plainspoken and moving. Yet Reed has one more surprise up his sleeve and he saves it for last: a version of "Ugly Beauty," one of Monk's tenderest ballads, that crashes into the frame with portentous Rachmaninovian locked-hands chords. The expected ballad never arrives, instead becoming a bouncing, syncopated romp at a mid-strut that doesn't resolve until the final note.

Pilc Moutin Hoenig
You Are the Song
Justin Time Records
2023

At the opposite pole from the introspection of Eric Reed is the kittenish playfulness of You Are the Song by the trio of pianist Jean-Michel Pilc, bassist Francois Moutin and drummer Ari Hoenig. This follow up arrives a dozen years after the trio's equally startling Threedom (Motema Music, 2012) and like Legacies, it looks to the past for material. Imagine the gymnastic virtuosity of the Standards Trio with a sense of humor.

Chestnuts such as "Well You Needn't," "Bemsha Swing," "Impressions" and even "After You've Gone" (who plays that anymore?) are springboards for instrumental and conceptual virtuosity that surprises and delights while never condescending. You wouldn't need to read Moutin's quote in the press materials to know that these tunes, all first takes, were called in the studio with no preparation. The thrill of mutual discovery leaps from the speakers.

As if to prove that it's not all fun and games, Pilc, Moutin and Hoenig end the program with a medley of "Alice in Wonderland" and "My Romance." Moutin starts the former with an ostinato on D and G that sets up a mid-waltz over Hoenig's brushes. A little "Waltz for Debby-"ish, non? The hommage is made clear with "My Romance," an echt-Bill Evans tune done straight and devastatingly movingly for it.

Tracks and Personnel

Legacies

Tracks: Dolphin Dance; Well, You Needn't; Blue State Blues; Pure Emotion; Obsession; Darn That Dream; Utviklingssang; Doxy; Un Poco Loco.

Personnel: Arturo O'Farrill: piano; Liany Mateo: bass; Zack O'Farrill: drums.

Black, Brown, and Blue

Tracks: Black, Brown, and Blue; Lean on Me; I Got It Bad; Peace; Search For Peace; Christina; Infant Eyes; Cheryl Ann; Along Came Betty; Variation Twenty-Four; One for E; Pastime Paradise; Ugly Beauty.

Personnel: Eric Reed: piano; Luca Alemanno bass; Reggie Quinerly: drums.

You Are the Song

Tracks: The Song is You; Straight No Chaser; Bemsha Swing; You Are The Song; Searing Congress; Dear Old Stockholm; Thin Air; After You've Gone; Alice in Wonderland/My Romance.

Personnel: Jean-Michel Pilc: piano; Francois Moutin: bass; Ari Hoenig: drums.

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