Jason Smith's Think Like This
(Alternity, 2005) was an unexpected debut from a drummer with greater credibility as a pop and rock session player. Teamed with keyboardist Gary Husband and bassist Dave Carpenter, that disc demonstrated that there can often be a considerable gap between how one makes a living and the direction chosen when given the artistic freedom to do so.
Tipping Point captures the same trio in a 2006 performance at Los Angeles' The Jazz Bakery. With Husband living in the UK, this trio may not get together on a regular basis, but it's clear that when they do there's an immediate chemistry. It suggests a trio who, comfortable with a diversity of styles in and out of the jazz sphere, has the imagination to take even the most familiar material and massage it into new forms.
The group reprises two tunes from Think Like This, but stretches them out even further. Husband innovatively reharmonizes "The Way You Look Tonight so significantly that, with the exception of a couple of signposts, the standard is nearly unrecognizable. The keyboardist's own, more complex "Three Lies provides everyone the opportunity to explore a spectrum that includes abstract impressionism, unassailable swing and near-fusion level funk. Jimmy Webb's normally buoyant "Up Up and Away is reinvented as a tender ballad.
Smith continues to mine the repertoires of two influential artists. The inherent melodism of Keith Jarrett's "Star Bright is retained, but by morphing a solo piano improvisation into a trio piece there's the opportunity for democratic dialogue. Kenny Wheeler's "Heyoke never loses site of its composer's melancholy lyricism, but takes surprising rhythmic liberties, as the rhythm section seems to ebb and flow beneath Husband's lengthy solo, where the interaction is at such a subconscious level that it's more often felt than heard.
Husband, perhaps best-known as the drummer for artists including Allan Holdsworth and Level 42, isn't the only percussionist with strong piano skills, but by evolving a parallel and equally important career as a keyboardist, he's certainly a rarity. Appearing in both capacities on guitar icon John McLaughlin's Industrial Zen (Verve, 2006) and gearing up for the guitarist's first fusion tour of North America in over twenty years, it should come as no surprise that this trio tackles McLaughlin's altered blues, "Follow Your Heart. But far from the free-bop elasticity of the original version on McLaughlin's Extrapolation (Polydor, 1969), Smith's funky backbeat and Carpenter's visceral anchor supporting Husband's Rhodes solo prove it's possible to groove organically in 11/8.
Like Think Like This, Tipping Point stretches boundaries rather than breaking them. Nor does Smith's trio doesn't have a singular, pigeon-holing concept like The Bad Plus. Instead, it's about honesty, open-mindedness, strong material and broad-scoped playing that stands on its own without resorting to devices that ultimately time-stamp a group. With an approach that's timeless without sacrificing modernity, one can only hope that Smith's trio is here to stay.