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Film Review

The Peter Erskine Trio Live at Jazz Baltica

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While none of the delicacy that made the trio so notable is missing, there's also a stronger sense of swing, a firmer extroversion that comes as something of a surprise to those only familiar with the more ethereal approach of their recorded work.
The Peter Erskine Trio
Live at Jazz Baltica
Hudson Music
Recorded 1993; DVD released 2004

American drummer Peter Erskine's mid-to-late '90s trio, featuring British pianist John Taylor and Swedish double-bassist Palle Danielsson, was arguably one of the best piano trios of the time, albeit never reaching the kind of broad recognition in North America that it deserved. Over the course of four records, beginning with the intensely lyrical You Never Know (ECM, '93) and finishing with the more oblique but no-less-compelling Juni (ECM, '99), the trio went a long way towards cementing the already solid reputations of each member, in an introspective context that more closely reflected the European concerns of all involved. In fact, along with Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson's equally reflective trio, there were few, if any, trios out there who were so elegantly mining the rich tradition of post-Evans impressionism coupled with a deeper sense of space.

Previously available only on VHS tape, Hudson Music has finally reissued the Erskine Trio's compelling performance at Jazz Baltica in Salzau, Germany. Live at Jazz Baltica captures the trio in its earliest days, shortly after the release of You Never Know in '93, and is intriguing as a counterpoint to the recording. While none of the delicacy that made the trio so notable is missing, there's also a stronger sense of swing, a firmer extroversion that comes as something of a surprise to those only familiar with the more ethereal approach of their recorded work.

While Taylor had been on the scene for over twenty years by this point, a case could be made that it was with this trio that he began a stylistic upswing into the distinctive musical personality that he is today. Less a linear player, Taylor's style is characterized by a rich harmonic density that still manages to be imbued with an awareness of the value of space, of letting notes and phrases breathe. And while his work in his own on-again-off-again Azimuth trio has demonstrated a remarkable composer capable of melding beautiful melodies with a more abstract sensibility, this trio seems to be the watershed point where he began to emerge as a composer of note. The three compositions that he contributes to this 75-minute set - "Pure and Simple," "Evan's Song" and "Clapperclowe" — are all distinguished by his ability to take more outré harmonic concerns and make them wholly engaging and accessible. Able to move from subtle thematic ideas to rapid flurries of notes, with this trio Taylor left behind his more direct references, becoming a pianist with a personal vernacular that is becoming increasingly influential with each passing year.

Danielsson has a rich history that goes back to early work with Stenson and Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek, not to mention pianist Keith Jarrett's popular European Quartet of the '70s. With a deep tone that resonates in the gut and an ability to anchor the proceedings while responding empathically to his musical surroundings, Danielsson has an uncanny ability to drive and support at the same time. On Vince Mendoza's deceptively simple yet evocative "She Never Has a Window," Danielsson comfortably straddles the fence between tension-and-release, push-and-pull, occasionally filling the spaces with curious rhythmical conceits that seem telepathically picked up by Taylor and Erskine.

Erskine has always been something of a perpetual student. Having first come to the attention of the public through his work with Stan Kenton and then with Weather Report, Erskine's non-invasive approach to this trio is simply remarkable and, like Taylor, represents something of a turning point in his career. And, also like Taylor, while he had composed some fine pieces up to this point, the symbiosis of the trio seems to have encouraged him to write some of the best compositions of his career, including the beautifully melancholy ballad "On the Lake," a tune that Erskine has gone on to record in numerous other contexts but is arguably interpreted best by this trio. While Erskine continues to grow as a drummer and writer, there is something magical about this trio that he has since yet to surpass; a combination of song-like clarity and economy with a sense of adventure that rarely comes along in any artist's career.

While Erskine, like Taylor and Danielsson, is in possession of unquestionable technique, it is the absolute commitment to service of the song that makes his playing so refreshing in this context. Every note, every phrase, counts with this trio, and while the abilities of each member are always in clear evidence, there's nothing superfluous or wasteful to be found. Yet, unlike the recordings, which are more inward-looking, it becomes evident that in performance — subtly, grace and elegance aside — this is a trio that could also be exciting. Danielsson's "Palle's Headache," while somewhat subdued on Time Being (ECM, '94), positively bristles with energy and gregarious interplay.

Beautifully-recorded, the multiple camera angles lend a "you are there" ambience to the experience. Expanded from the original VHS version, the DVD also includes a bonus track — the encore of Erskine's "The Music of My People" — and a discography complete with sound samples.

It was with great disappointment that this trio came to an end in '99, although everyone, most notably Taylor, has gone on to further accomplishment. But for those who were unable to catch this fine trio in concert, Live at Jazz Baltica is a welcome release; and for those who were fortunate enough to have seen them, a reminder of just how vivid and vibrant this trio could be.

Personnel: John Taylor (piano), Palle Danielsson (double-bass), Peter Erskine (drums, percussion)

Track Listing: Everybody's Song But My Own; Pure and Simple; Touch Her Soft Lips and Part; Palle's Headache; Evan's Song; She Never Has a Window; On the Lake; Clapperclowe; Bonus Selection: Encore: The Music of My People

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