Ernie Krivda, JD Allen, Marcus Roberts at Tri-C JazzFest 2008, Cleveland

Matt Marshall BY

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Bass and drums are the core of anything truly American
—Marcus Roberts
Ernie Krivda Trio, JD Allen Trio, Marcus Roberts Trio
Tri-C JazzFest 2008
Cleveland, Ohio
April 20, 27, 2008

Is it just me, or is this jazz trio thing for real? Over the last decade or so, the trio has risen from the jazz ashes (mostly crashed and burnt fusion and neutered horn acts) to restake a claim for reality, full- bellied laughs and ripped-open hearts included. Spurred by the likes of Brad Mehldau and his insistence on and success with the form, artists are stripping their music to the roots to see what fabulous new weeds will emerge from the dirt.

Tipping its hat to this phenomenon, the 29th Annual Tri-C JazzFest Cleveland, which concluded April 27, featured a quartet of trio acts over the course of its ten-day run. Arranged, if the fest's artistic director Willard Jenkins, is to be believed, merely by "happy circumstance," the series nevertheless highlighted the huge—some might say scary—space that exists for players within this outwardly sparse form. Think of it as a shoebox somehow large enough to house a football game. Now think of a quarterback who suddenly finds himself naked and running alone on the grass, a spotlight following his every move. That's how it must feel sometimes to play in this context.

Much heralded tenor man Joshua Redman topped the trio bill, performing Thursday, April 24 at the Tri- C Metro Campus Auditorium. Unfortunately, circumstances prevented this poor, busy critic with misplaced priorities from catching Redman's set. Still, I ask you, hasn't enough ink (not to mention server space) been spilled over Redman's artistry and accomplishments? Of course it has. Thus, in the interest of freshness (and necessity) I propose we focus our attention—appropriately enough—on the three remaining acts that made up the series.

Cleveland's own Ernie Krivda got things underway on Sunday, April 20 at the wonderful Greg L. Reese Performing Arts Center. Housed within the East Cleveland Public Library, this venue is one of the best in the city to view live music. Luckily for us jazz nuts, Mr. Reese is one of our own, and fills his place exclusively with jazz music. Performing in a trio for the first time (or such was his unsubstantiated claim) veteran saxophonist Krivda delighted a packed house dressed to its teeth in Sunday finery.

Krivda's quick-noted solos, intersong banter and full-bodied musical intention (the sexagenarian regularly grooved hips and thrust right knee to chest in forcing the desired music from his instrument) brought exultant laughs and yelps from the audience. Bassist Peter Dominguez gave Krivda invigorating support, switching frequently from quick, single notes to slower, Bach-like bowings. Drummer Ron Godale remained in the shadows most of the afternoon, but finally broke out on the group's final number, a Krivda- penned ode to L.A. entitled "Nights on Sunset."

Under the lights, Krivda's visage swapped places with Jackson Pollack's, President Ford's and Tom Waits.' But the group's music wasn't as nuanced. While its post-bop sound came with an R&B kick that defied your knee to quit bouncing, and individual players had moments of brilliance, the whole rarely rose above the delightful. Still, I didn't hear anyone lodging complaints.

That evening, the festivities moved west to Cleveland Heights and the venerable Nighttown. There, the J.D. Allen Trio held court. Allen's deep, full sound filled even more space coming on the heels of Krivda's almost nasal tone—the difference being that of Paul Robeson singing after Willie Nelson. From the start, the brash, young saxophonist wailed like Coltrane on A Love Supreme (Impulse, 1964), but he got mired in the sound, and was unable to step free of it for the remainder of the first set. Drummer Rudy Royston—one to watch, to be sure—was the star of this initial program. His sheer power and dexterity over the skins delivered the Elvin Jonesian polyrhythms that make this kind of music possible.

With only brief pauses to mark the closing of one tune and the beginning of the next, Allen's trio threw its crowd up one exultant mountain after another. Running through numbers like "I am—I am," "Id" and "Pagan," one might call these—in opposition to Trane's intentions—secular prayers. There came a moment, however, in the second set when Allen overlaid Royston's mad drive with perfectly matched metal notes. These were soon copied by bassist Gregg August, and the three played briefly as one. When they parted, the Coltrane mold was shattered. Keying finally on Royston's radical beats, the trio unleashed a sound more refreshingly its own, reaching a zenith four tunes later with a funk number worked seamlessly into the harrowing edge of a classical piece.

The festival ended a week later back at the Reese Center. Pianist Marcus Roberts brought to town a more standard trio of piano, bass and drums. And what bass and drums! Perhaps trying to prove Roberts' mid-concert observation that "bass and drums are the core of anything truly American," Roland Guerin and Jason Marsalis gave a clinic on the strings and skins, respectively. Each visibly enjoyed the other's music- making company and coaxed his mate's playing to its height. The trio often exchanged musical jokes, infecting the crowd from the start—the afternoon was punctuated by laughter.

Roberts has a Ramsey Lewis-like sound that easily finds its way from staccato stops and starts, from the shock of chords struck so as to signal all the notes that will be left unplayed, into the dazzling roles of a concert pianist. As a result, listeners are often caught holding their breath, as if mere breathing might upset the impossibility of this fitful, headlong music.

Veteran trumpeter Marcus Belgrave joined the trio for a couple numbers near the show's finish. Appearing happy just to be there, in the moment, alive and blowing, Belgrave proved a natural extension of the group's jovial spirit. And the blasts from his horn, if tinged by an aged scratch, were nonetheless exhilarating.

Closing with "Sweet as Can Be," Roberts' gang summed up the fest's trio series as a whole. There's a greater crash and complexity to larger bands, but nothing exposes jazz's mischievous, thumping heart like a trio. Sweet as can be, indeed!

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