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The Art of the (Guitar) Trio

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One simple format truly can allow for endless possibilities. For yet another exhibit, here are half a dozen that could hardly be more different from each other.

Orion Tango
The In Between
1k Recordings
2022

If Orion Tango was adventurous and loud in the Before Times (and they were), their first Covid-era outing makes its predecessors sound like a couple of easy Sunday strolls. This time the "power" in "power trio" is almost off the measurable charts. They're still completely winging it without a plan, and with The In Between they go from free wailing psych-Krautrock to full-out metalocalypse. However, the band doesn't mean it to be doomy: in a time when the whole world needs to change, they offer the sound of "releasing extreme optimism" for whatever will come next.

Jeremy Carlstedt might bash the drums (and other heavy objects) like a crazed inmate trying to pound the walls down; Tim Motzer's squealing can sometimes sound more like grinding scrap metal than souped-up guitar. It's a wild illustration that the breakdown of an obsolete "old normal" can be unsettling but also completely exhilarating. With Barry Meehan providing a low end as heavy as the crush of gravity, the three spend a near-overwhelming hour pounding and shaking the place for all they're worth. Floating to uncertain destinations or (more often) shredding genres and eardrums alike, they make a blistering experience as audacious as the times deserve.

Oz Noy/Ugonna Okegwo/Ray Marchica
Riverside
Outside In
2022

Strange times also call for their share of comfort, so for their part the Riverside Trio provides a warm dose of reassuring familiarity amidst the gloom. It began as a simple way to reconnect when early 2021 allowed for hanging out together outdoors: New York City working players Oz Noy, Ray Marchica and Ugonna Okegwo found a picturesque place in a park next to the Hudson River and began a regular picnic jam through the warm months. The program is mostly one of old jazz staples (give or take an original blues piece or drum solo) played with simple class and charm.

If that's a small surprise for fans of Noy's wild and weird electric fusion, this is a chance to rest on his more straightforward chops (which are considerable). He apparently got by with a simple battery-powered amp while playing in the park, and while the trio took advantage of a studio for this recording, the guitar tones still stay refreshingly simple and clean. Okegwo's double bass breezily skips alongside the slick lines and bluesy solos; Marchica skitters through rockabilly rhythms and dreamy toe-tappers with ease. Every minute is appealingly sunny and fresh, just as comfort-food fare should be.

Lionel Loueke
Close Your Eyes
Sounderscore
2021

Even when Lionel Loueke's material is as familiar as can be, it sounds like nobody else. With percussive plucking and a deft way of tapping and muting the strings themselves, his guitar style always has a natural Afro-funk tinge about it without needing any effects. Close Your Eyes is a bit unusual for him in a couple ways. The set comprises some Great American Songbook chestnuts and bebop standards (probably because it was knocked out in one day amidst some time on the road), and his guitar is mostly electric. Nonetheless, the continually bubbling rhythmicality makes it fit alongside his globe-spanning solo work or his fusion trio Gilfema. Loueke and his equally playful bandmates give an exotic tinge to pieces by Wayne Shorter and John Coltrane, while not neglecting the simple melodic beauty of a sedate "Moon River" or "Skylark." Befitting such a world-class player, he makes any material his own in any mode.

Svela/Bjørgo/Nygård
=three
Self produced
2021

The sound of New York may not be a central theme here as much as it was on Eirik Svela's previous outing Bits & Pieces (Losen, 2018), but =three has that same urbane smoothness, like a rich cocktail that goes down easy and still packs some nice flavors. This time the whole trio gets equal billing for good reason; bassist Håkon Norby Bjørgo is happy to share leads and take equal solos with Svela's dusky guitar, beautifully showing an easy rapport developed over several years of running their own concert series with a rotating string of guests. Here, Hermund Nygård goes from frequent guest to co-lead, the familiar pieces chosen to give his rhythmic magic space to breathe.

=three feels like the mid-evening set where the club is still bustling and it's not quite time for the night to wind down yet. Songs from Tadd Dameron, Cole Porter and Antonio Carlos Jobim let them muse, drift and get jaunty without breaking the easygoing casualness at the heart of the affair. Of all their qualities, the generous and supportive interplay always comes out on top.

Park Blues
Boarding Completed
Losen Records
2022

Jazz standards are part of this trio's makeup but ultimately a departure point. They show the lineage of Jim Hall and Wes Montgomery, while their debut features all-original material and wanders from Latin-tinged romp to quasi-emo daydream. Bård Helgerud's guitar slides through those different little patches as smoothly as the rhythm section glides underneath; his pieces reflect extensive studies in classic bop, his native Norwegian folk roots and his inspiration from travels abroad all at once. The trio covers enough ground not to need extra flavors, but it still doesn't feel shoehorned when Live Foyn Friis drops in for some cute crooning, cooing and scatting on the last few numbers. The mix of flavors keeps changing like a series of travel photos, showing a solid range for a debut and hinting that they're only just taking off for farther destinations.

Red Gazelle Trio
In the Midst of It All
Self produced
2021

Despite the title, the dreamlike feel of Red Gazelle Trio's sophomore recording often makes it sound rather removed from everything. It was partly a product of Covid isolation, so perhaps it was meant to imply both being surrounded by events and apart from them. The same odd duality runs through the music itself. These pieces feel like meandering daydreams as much as compositions, yet created with constant diligence and focus. The players experiment together with nascent ideas until something emerges naturally as a product of all three minds.

These performances feel like collective meanderings in much the same way. Most of the pieces lean dreamy and introspective (a couple lockdown-themed titles more so than most), flowing through some pretty different modes subtly enough that it isn't jarring. Kristoffer Vejslev Dyssegaard's guitar adds various layers of echo as the songs shift. These three don't go for song structures with heads or choruses; they prefer to feel their way through and wait to see how the overall shape comes out afterwards. All the same, spots like "Kaleidoskop" and the centerpiece "Stargazing" show that there's room to get fast and frisky even when organic drifting is the order of the day. Whatever directions they wander as a unit, somehow it all makes its own kind of sense.

Tracks and Personnel

The In Between

Tracks: Ethereal Riff; Metal Shop; Mars Delta; Bush Hog; The In Between; ground Fault; The Bridge.

Personnel: Tim Motzer: guitars, bass, electronics; Barry Meehan: bass; Jeremy Carlstedt: drums, metals.

Riverside

Tracks: All the Things You Are; Anthropology; Have You Met Miss Jones; Billie's Bounce; Riverside Blues; 6/8 Lunch Break; Out of Nowhere; Donna Lee; This Could Be the Start of Something Big; Sunny.

Personnel: Oz Noy: guitar; Ugonna Okegwo: bass; Ray Marchica: drums.

Close Your Eyes

Tracks: Footprints; It Might as Well Be Spring; Countdown; Moon River; Solar; Blue Monk; Body and Soul; Close Your Eyes; Skylark; We See; Naima.

Personnel: Lionel Loueke: guitar, vocals; Reuben Rogers: bass; Eric Harland: drums.

=three

Tracks: Dance of the Infidels; On a Misty Night; Miyako; It's Alright with Me; Fee Fi Fo Fum; Triste; When Sunny Gets Blue; Serenity; My Shining Hour.

Personnel: Eirik Berg Svela: guitar; Håkon Norby Bjørgo: bass; Hermund Nygård: drums.

Boarding Completed

Tracks: Hvittingfoss Skyline; Park Blues; Manic Minor; Endelig Hjemme; Innen Klokken Slår Åtte; Ekte Kjærlighet; Vinter; På Styler Gjennom Kardamili.

Personnel: Bård Helgerud: guitar; Andreas Dreier: bass; Magnus Sefaniassen Eide: drums; Live Foyn Friis: vocals (6-8).

In the Midst of It All

Tracks: Kaleidoskop; Over-the-Counterpoint; Frantically Mellow; Stay Crispy; Stargazing; Wast West; Seclusion; Introspection Unlimited.

Personnel: Kristoffer Vejslev: guitar; Peter Price: bass; Simon Forchhammer: drums.

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