It can be argued that a quartet offers jazz listeners maximum effect with minimal personnel. It allows for two solo voices without compromising the rhythm section, and gives a composer access to a wider range of colors than could be provided by a smaller group. Then again, there are players doing much more with much less. Here are three examples.
Keyboardist Daniel Kelly made significant marks on the jazz scene in 2009, both as a leader, on Emerge (Brooklyn Jazz Underground, 2009), and as a sideman, on guitarist Joel Harrison's Urban Myths (High Note, 2009). However, Kelly is more than just a jazzman, as his compositions for chamber orchestra demonstrate. With Portal, he merges the colors of classical piano with the improvisatory freedom of jazz, and the results are staggering.
The 17 spontaneously created pieces on Portal make up an examination of the thought processnot only of Kelly's thought process, but the thought processes of his protagonists as they are presented with various dilemmas and crises. "Initiate" shows that no decision, however "simple," is in any way simple, while "Descending The Spirals" begins as an enthusiastic rush down a staircase, but slows precipitously when all the possibilities are considered about what might be waiting at the bottom of the stairs. The same battle between the need for truth and fear of the truth is joined again on "Removing The Veil Of Illusion." Meanwhile, pure, unadulterated terror fuels the protagonist's flight in "The Huge Stones Come Alive."
There is an operatic atmosphere to Kelly's compositions, and that opera isn't Pirates of Penzance. The colors are dark and roiling for most of Portal, with shadowy figures lurking (either physically or psychologically) around every corner. It's only when the truth is exposed in "The Ordinary Dissolves Into The Light" that the shadows begin to lose their power. The coda, "Phoenix," shows that redemption and rebirth are possible, but it's a long slow process that only the dedicated survive.
Given that Kelly's musical pictures were painted completely off the cuff, the depth of detail on Portal is astounding. "Frozen Museum" evokes white light, high ceilings and glass sculptures, and it's all devoid of warmthin short, devoid of life. "Wisp" conjures up a "will-o-the-wisp," a floating ball of light seen at night that seems to retreat when approached. These are only two of the hundreds of vivid images that sprouted from Kelly's piano in one two-hour recording session in 2006, and now everyone can experience them. It took three years to make it happen, but powerful things come to those who wait.
Visit Daniel Kelly on the web.
Gary Peacock & Marc Copland
While the bass can be deferential to the piano in a trio configuration, a duo format demands the two instruments operate on an equal footing; otherwise, all that's left is a solo piano date with an independent foundation. And that kind of defeats the purpose. Fortunately, bassist Gary Peacock and pianist Marc Copland seem to revel in each other's musical companyhence the sterling rapport that makes Insight such an enjoyable experience.
Telescoping trumpeter Miles Davis' sprawling "All Blues" down to an intimate level is an achievement in itself, but to maintain the spiritual resonance of the original in the process is something much bigger. Peacock and Copland accomplish both feats in the space of a minute. Peacock's iron-clad foundation figures give the piece the spine it needs, while Copland's pre-melody ruminations show a willingness to do more than just stick to the path laid by Davis and pianist Bill Evans. This "Blues" dances across the stage as Copland's lines swirl around Peacock's vamp. Peacock then takes the opportunity to get lyrical while Copland fills sparsely.
Another Davis tune, "Blue in Green," offers a light moment after the unsettled sequence of the Peacock/Copland original "The Wanderer"; they give "Cavatina" the underlying sadness this warm waltz requires; and "In Your Own Sweet Way" let the players have some fun with one of pianist Dave Brubeck's sweeter melodies. However, the meat of Insight can be found on improv-inspired originals like "Wanderer." The duo simulates the frantic ant-hill zeitgeist of a city on "Rush Hour," making chaos grind against chaos, and "Matterhorn" evokes the majesty and foreboding of one of Switzerland's more recognizable mountains.
Listening to Peacock and Copland work with (and off) each other is reminiscent of the moment in Apollo 13 where Tom Hanks says his crew know each others' moves, and can read the tone in each others' voices. "Goes Out, Comes In" seems like one of those "Let's roll tape and see what happens" moments that came out the way they wanted. That said, every piece on Insightoriginal or standardsounds like it started in a rehearsal hall with that hallowed musical question, "What'll we do now?" There is action and reaction, dialogue that is lively but respectful, and every piece seems like just another movement in a rich, organic, multi-chapter symphony that just keeps unfolding and expanding.
Visit Marc Copland on the web.
Boom Tic Boom
In any career, it's always good to have a varied résumé. In the case of drummer Allison Miller, it doesn't get much more diverse than backstopping both Hammond B3 master Dr. Lonnie Smith and singer/songwriter Ani DiFranco. With that kind of eclectic background, it's no surprise that the only way Boom Tic Boom fits into the piano trio cubbyhole is with an assist from a very large mallet.
Part of this disc's exciting square-peggishness comes from having Myra Melford in the piano chair. One of the main contributors to jazz's avant-garde movement, Melford brings an extraordinary richness and a dizzying depth of thought to everything she does. In addition to contributing two of her own compositions (the fractured, combustible "Be Melting Snow" and the spiritual coda "Night), Melford's off-kilter musical outlook helps Miller and bassist Todd Sickafoose steer Boom through some wonderfully twisted turns.
After an in-the-clear solo that announces Miller's presence with authority, the trio slides into the driving vibe of the opener "Cheyenne." Miller's composition has a dark undertone that springs from Melford's dramatic chord changes and Sickafoose's robust foundation. Melford keeps her solo simple while maintaining a teeth-grinding intensity. Sickafoose inserts a pleading figure into the piece while Miller launches a second solo that's a lot like French cinema; startling ideas fly in fast from out of the blue, make their impact, and then recede quickly into the distance.
Miller shares Paul Motian's talent for ghost-in-the-machine embellishment, but she's also got a love of the groove that is poles apart from Motian's obsession with rubato. "Big Lovely" is a monstrous blues because Melford exposes all the hurt the protagonist carries, and pianist Mary Lou Williams' "Intermission" is soul jazz in the 21st century, suggesting pianist Ramsey Lewis with even more muscle. The flip side of "Intermission" is Hoagy Carmichael's "Rockin' Chair," where the trio replaces the original's light-hearted dreaminess with an immensely personal sense of melancholy. As light as "Rockin'" is dark, "CFS (Candy Flavored Sidewalks)" is a joyful piece of Americana that features tasty bowing and plucking from violinist Jenny Scheinman.
Devotees of traditional trio recordings should handle Boom Tic Boom with insulated gloves, as this disc's heat singes the status quo. Allison Miller stretches the piano trio concept in innovative directions, just stopping short of ripping the sub-genre to shreds. Well, there's always a next timewith any luck, anyway.
Visit Allison Miller on the web.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: Initiate; Wrestling the Tiger; Descending the Spirals; Continuing On...; The Huge Stones Come Alive; On the Cliff Path; Wisp; Burning Heart Inside; Turbulence; Zephyr; Removing the Veil of Illusion; The Ordinary Dissolve into The Light; Magic Circle Dance; Frozen Museum; Pouring the Elements; Phoenix.
Personnel: Daniel Kelly: piano.
Tracks: All Blues; The Wanderer; Blue in Green; Rush Hour; River's Run; Matterhorn; The Pond; Goes Out Comes In; Late Night; Cavatina; In Your Own Sweet Way; Benediction; Sweet and Lovely.
Personnel: Gary Peacock: bass; Marc Copland: drums.
Boom Tic Boom
Tracks: Cheyenne; Fead; Intermission; Rockin' Chair; Be Melting Snow; CFS (Candy Flavored Sidewalks); Big Lovely; Night.
Personnel: Allison Miller: drums; Myra Melford: piano; Todd Sickafoose: bass; Jenny Scheinmann: violin (6).