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3x3: Piano Trios: January 2020


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Geir Åge Johnsen/Fredrik Sahlander/Bernt Moen
Losen Records

What exactly does this title signify? It isn't quite clear, seeing as there are three players here and each counts as a positive one in any equation. Small mystery and all, though, it's a fun session brimming with good humor and smarts. The players here offer a mix of fresh compositions and old-school jazz staples, all offered with the same melodic charm and sharp dose of funk—enough so that Fredrik Salander's electric bass sounds at home in this otherwise acoustic setting as much as it would in a loud fusion group.

The trio establishes a vibe both cheerful and snappy-smart with the odd-timed jaunt of "Isotope," which can get taken in quite different directions; their beautiful take on "Naima" is still as a calm mountain lake, while Bill Evans' "Interplay" and "All Blues" sound on the edge of a clattering breakdown. Rather than seesawing between those two poles, Johnsen, Salander and Moen make them complement each other as shades of the same overall tone. When "When All Is Said and Done" is done, the feeling is similar to the wind-down of a fun dinner party that just flew by before you noticed. Fortunately this one is a pleasure to fly through again and again.

Max Petersen Trio
Divine Traces

This German trio is also quite a fun one, albeit in a much more obtuse manner; they may not catch the ear in obvious ways, but listen more closely and it becomes clear they're having a good time. They're also continually challenging themselves and us, which means the fun is somewhat like that of productive but tiring exercise. Divine Traces can be a struggle, but it's the kind that means they're definitely stronger players (and we're hopefully better listeners) after having gone through it.

Petersen's pieces show an ear for elegant classical melodies and harmonics while the group explores them with the improvisational dynamics of a jazz combo. The resulting pieces tell stories through their entire structures rather than "just" relying on tone or melody, though those can often be evocative on their own as well. The high drama comes from the trio collectively hammering each idea into shape, flowing from rowdy peaks to peaceful lulls and back (and forth and back again), as if they're punctuating a story or scoring a film in real time. This one may not engage the limbs, but offers the brain cells a thoroughly stimulating workout.

Fred Hersch Trio
10 Years, 6 Discs
Palmetto Records

Behind the simple truth-in-advertising presentation here lies a rich mine of sensitive interplay, exquisite improvisation and masterful handling of material. It's redundant for some of Fred Hersch's more fervent followers since all the material is previously released, but the set (comprising five Palmetto Records releases by his trio with John Hébert and Eric McPherson) is a most excellent compilation for the curious and a trove of beauty in any form.

It was a solid and fully formed working group that appeared in 2010 with Whirl, Hersch's miraculously erudite return from a debilitating coma and illness. Even so, they've only continued evolving from there, patiently growing into a unit as legendarily eloquent as its leader. All these sessions fit into the same general pattern (the two studio releases are still approached like live sets), spanning beautiful quietude and spry swing, crossing Hersch's eclectic originals with standard chestnuts and his customary dose of Thelonious Monk. Still, each recording is its own snapshot of mood and circumstances within that open-ended framework, and each offers a wealth of small delights.

The two evening sets of Alive at the Vanguard (2012) honor the iconic venue's history by tackling the likes of Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman, with Hersch continually inverting and inventing the pieces' structures and keeping their easy-on-the-ears beauty intact. 2014's Floating on the other hand is surprisingly brisk at the kickoff, only to become primarily folky and thoughtful as it unfolds. If there's one standout among such gems, it's the exceptional set captured on Live in Europe (2018), where the players' interpretative adventurousness and depth of emotion reaches a wondrous peak. It's an impressive decade's work that never disappoints for a moment.

Tracks and Personnel


Tracks: Isotope; Lament; Naima; Interplay; Things Ain't What They Used To Be; All Blues; When All Is Said And Done.

Personnel: Geir Åge Johnsen: drums; Fredrik Sahlander: bass; Bernt Moen: piano.

Divine Traces

Tracks: Pathos Piece; Advertency; Divine Traces; Cadenza; No Change Please; Gift; Bondi Boy.

Personnel: Max Petersen: piano; Dominique Girod: bass; Fabian Arends: drums.

10 Years, 6 Discs

Tracks: Whirl: You're My Everything; Snow Is Falling...; Blue Midnight; Skipping; Mandevilla; When Your Lover Has Gone; Whirl; Sad Poet; Mrs. Parker of K.C.; Still Here. Alive at the Vanguard CD1: Havana; Tristesse; Segment; Lonely Woman/Nardis; Dream of Monk; Rising, Falling; Softly As In a Morning Sunrise; Doxy. CD2: Opener; I Fall in Love Too Easily; Jackalope; The Wind/Moon and Sand; Sartorial; From This Moment On; The Song Is You/Played Twice. Floating: You & the Night & the Music; Floating; West Virginia Rose (For Florette & Roslyn); Home Fries (For John Hebert); Far Away (For Shimrit); Arcata (For Esperanza); A Speech to the Sea (For Maaria); Autumn Haze (For Kevin Hays); If Ever I Would Leave You; Let's Cool One. Sunday Night at the Vanguard: A Cockeyed Optimist; Serpentine; The Optimum Thing; Calligram; Blackwing Palomino; For No One; Everybody's Song But My Own; The Peacocks; We See; Solo Encore: Valentine. Live in Europe: We See; Snape Maltings; Scuttlers; Skipping; Bristol Fog; Newklypso; The Big Easy; Miyako; Black Nile; Blue Monk.

Personnel: Fred Hersch: piano; John Hébert: bass; Eric McPherson: drums.

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