Colin Vallon Trio: New York, NY, May 20, 2011

Warren Allen By

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Colin Vallon Trio
Rubin Museum of Art
New York, NY
May 20, 2011

New York City's Rubin Museum houses a large collection of fine art from the Himalayans, much of it with religious symbolism. In partnership with the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, the museum has also become a home for a series of new jazz performances on Fridays by innovative artists both young and old. As part of this series, Swiss pianist Colin Vallon brought his trio to the Museum's beautiful downstairs stage on his first tour of the United States. Joining Vallon were longtime band mates , bassist Patrice Moret and drummer Samuel Rohrer. Working together for seven years, the trio's distinctive style and electric live performances have built a strong jazz following in Europe. Now, the trio's ECM debut and this first tour in the United States seem poised to generate more interest in this dynamic new band.

As dozens of candles flickered in golden holders on tables, and a projection of the Buddha looked down on the stage, the three musicians played compositions from their new album Rruga (ECM, 2011). All night long, before a captivated audience, the trio displayed the passion and energy that has garnered its live performances such acclaim. The trio's dynamics traced wide arcs, starting softly and building to powerful heights with a rock and roll excitement—sometimes multiple times in one song. Vallon might select a chord and hammer down on it mid-drum solo, driving Rohrer into a polyrhythmic frenzy. Or Vallon and Moret would duet in a haunting and trancelike exchange. These storms of ideas were bookended, not so much with melodic heads, but rather gradual crescendo and decrescendo. Thus Rohrer's "Polygonia" didn't really end, but drifted out of earshot, leaving several weighty beats of silence to hang in the dark before the audience realized it was time to applaud.

Moret's "Fjord" opened with Rohrer ringing out twinkling little tones from a small thumb piano played with tiny hammers. Vallon joined him by toying with the strings of the piano. In the dark, still space, the duet of unique sounds took on a mystical air—divorced of melody and Western tonality, but not feeling. The ideas developed with gentle rolling lines from the piano, bell-like tones from Rohrer, and a powerful statement from Moret that carried sighs and strokes of speech in complement with Vallon.

Unexpected sounds arose all night long from Vallon's prepared piano (such as the dragging of a balloon along the inner working to get an eerie vocal effect), the crying strings of Moret's bass, and Rohrer's emotive cymbal work. Melodies, while present, seemed more like shadows of ideas that divided and branched out as the band warmed up. At times the melody, such as it was, seemed to reside more in the bass, whose fat tone rested on top of an undulating bed of repeating piano figures and intricate drum rhythms. More often, the drums rose to the fore as a rhythmic voice speaking dizzying layers of beats among the mantra-like grooves and ostinatos by the bass and piano.

With regard to the album, much has been made of the influence of music from Turkey and the Caucasus in the songs. While some of those traditional modes and rhythms certainly were present, the band's live sound distinctly evoked a balanced foundation in European, American and East Asian sources. The sparse and European piano trio sound documented so strongly on ECM is clearly some inspiration to the players. Yet at the same time, the influence of dynamic and rhythmically complex modern American maestros, such as Brad Mehldau and his trio, was apparent in the complex rhythms and easy virtuosity of the band. Finally, perhaps it was just the space, but there seemed a distinctly Zen pulse underlying it all.

Indeed, the members each received a prayer shawl from the organizer at the end, which they wore as they bowed to the crowd. Midway through, Vallon also commented on how the band, after rushing to make it to New York that day, had had the chance to take a brief tour of the museum before performing. He had been struck, he said, by a picture of the Buddha touching the earth that symbolized the moment of enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. After hurrying all day to travel across the States, he felt that this symbol was a good sign.

This seemed reflected in a variation of the song "Rruga," opening with a slow march feel and its hypnotic, minor keyed melody. The beat formed a deep, toe-tapping groove that Vallon played around inside, developing ideas until the heavy downbeat seemed to coalesce with the meandering of the piano into something new, more upbeat. This Eastern tinged bluesy then saw the piano introduce some discord, swelling to a moment of atonal enlightenment, and then returning to earth with that swaying pulse. It was an effective reflection of what Vallon had spoken to earlier, a meeting point of the celestial and the earthly through three instrumentalists. Few trios have the skill to make such music with meaning.

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