Pianist Hank Jones has been the only constant in the nearly thirty-year run of the Great Jazz Trio, but a stellar range of players have come and goneincluding Jones' brother Elvin, Al Foster, and Jimmy Cobb on drums; and bassists Eddie Gomez, George Mraz, and Richard Davis. One of the most potent yet short-lived versions of the trio was its second incarnation featuring bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams. Perhaps it's because, with their shared background as members of Miles Davis' landmark quintet of the mid-'60s, Carter and Williams were able to approach this more mainstream affair with just the right combination of unabashed swing and freer interpretation.
But while this version of the Great Jazz Trio recorded a handful of albums between '77 and '78, released by the Japanese Inner City and East Wind labels, they have remained essentially unavailable to North American audiences, aside from the few who were prepared to dole out the big bucks for them as expensive imports. The good news is that the new subsidiary of 441 Records dedicated, Test of Time Records, has acquired the rights to thirty East Wind recordings, and will be releasing them, many for the first time on CD, in the coming months. And so, along with the important reissue of Andrew Hill's solo disc Hommage, Test of Time's second release is a recording of the Great Jazz Trio's At the Village Vanguard, culled from a two-night run in '77.
While some might bemoan the short running time of this set, at just less than 37 minutes, and wish that some bonus tracks from the same engagement could be made available, that's really quibbling. Because this set of four tunesCharlie Parker's "Moose the Mooche, John Coltrane's "Naima, Claus Ogerman's "Favors, and a Ron Carter original, "12+12 is as invigorating as it is elegant, as vivacious as it is refined.
Jones may be the least adventurous of the three players, but he demonstrates the kind of broad vernacular that has seen him thrive throughout the many phases of jazz that have evolved since he first began playing professionally in the '40s. Whether it's on the up-tempo bebop of "Moose the Mooche or the more exploratory reading of "Naima, Jones exhibits a style that may not rattle cages, but is intuitively right, regardless of the context.
Carter's robust and deeply resonant tone makes "Naima a highlight of the set, and the chemistry he shared with Williams remains one of the marvels of the past forty years. The two take Coltrane's tune and turn it into a tour-de-force of rhythmic interplay and intent that show just how elastic they were under any circumstance while, at the same time, remaining faithful to Jones' more understated approach.
At the Village Vanguard is but the first of a number of Japanese releases from the Great Jazz Trio that Test of Time will be releasing, and for North American fans, it's a good reason to celebrate.