It is always a pleasure to hear a working band. Not a one-off meeting, or an all-star project hastily thrown together, both of which often promise more than they deliverbut a genuine team of musicians committed to a shared musical vision, one that can be honed and refined over the long course of a true collaborative partnership. Case in point is this release, the second from the group Stream, and it is a marvel of what can happen when three superb musicians work to achieve something greater than the sum of their parts.
Stream is a "piano trio," although that term doesn't quite do justice to these guys, given the superlative level of creativity and craft on display. Comprised of two veterans (Scott Lee
on bass, and Jeff Hirshfield
on drums) and one relative youngster (Yago Vazquez
on piano), the group offers more than enough strong writing, elegant improvisation, and rhythmic sophistication to help it stand apart from conventional piano trios. The eleven tracks on this release are all worth repeated encounters, as they are rich both in musical content and in the sheer enjoyment they provide.
The first thing that becomes apparent in hearing this music is how tuneful it is. Vázquez and Lee each composed four of the tracks on the record, with the remaining three being freely-improvised; but it's a testament to the group identity of the band that all the songs have a similar kind of feel. The melodies aren't simple, as they often have a sinuous quality, but they are all the more satisfying for their interesting twists and idiosyncrasies. And the playing isn't going to overpower the listener either; subtlety and delicacy are the order of the day, as Vázquez is more inclined to tease out the implications of a tune with careful, nimble flourishes than to provide a lot of dazzling pyrotechnics. The same goes for his partners. Lee's basswork embodies the same measured poise and understated musical sensibility as Vázquez; although his skills are undeniable, his chops are always in service of the music, and the melodic aspects of each piece shine through clearly in his contributions. Hirshfield too manages to say a great deal, but not with percussive bombast, as he is instead partial to letting his cymbals do the talking. His dexterity with the ride cymbal alone is enough to establish his credibility as a supremely musical drummer.
There are a lot of highlights worth mentioning, but these in particular stand out. The second cut, "Cue Ball," is a masterful performance, involving the close rapport that is the foundation of the group's approach. Using (fittingly enough) a "cue"-based system for numerous shifts in tempo and time signature, the catchy piece is challenging and complex, but at the same time engaging and accessible, with each transition made seamlessly and organically. The group's rhythmic flexibility is showcased on "Basses Loaded," where funky interplay and a driving pulse allow Vázquez an opportunity to strut his stuff a little, especially on the lower half of the piano. Even the freely-improvised tracks, like "As If" and "I'm Pretty Sure I'm Right... Dear," are remarkably disciplined and strikingly lyrical. And the album's somber closer, "Seeing Through," is a similarly memorable example of group improvisation that is hauntingly beautiful in its elegiac purity.
With such a terrific record, it is exciting to anticipate the new directions Stream might take as it continues to evolve. This is indeed proof positive that there are still new horizons to be explored by piano triosand by working bands!