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Jean-Paul Celea/Francois Couturier/Daniel Humair: Tryptic

Jeff Dayton-Johnson By

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Tryptic is an album which has what a lot of what you might call "ECM appeal." Fans of the storied German record label know who they are and know what they like, and will probably like this album, even if it isn't an ECM release.

It's not only because the intimate trio setting, recorded at Studio La Buissone in France by engineer Gérard de Haro, is the closest you will get to the crystalline ECM sound on the other side of the Rhine. It's also because of the presence of pianist Francois Couturier, much appreciated on ECM for his 2006 tribute to the films of Tarkovsky (Nostalghia) and his collaborations with oudist Anouar Brahem. There are, furthermore, two recordings of ECM stalwart John Surman's "Canticle with Response." And the set list reflects ECM's urge to merge jazz and classical idioms, featuring jazz treatments of music by Mahler, Beethoven, and Britten.

The program, well played and well recorded, toys with the listener's expectations of coherence. The record opens with a reading of the adagietto of Mahler's Fifth Symphony, about which conductor Willem Mengelburg wrote, "This Adagietto was Gustav Mahler's declaration of love for Alma! Instead of a letter, he sent her this manuscript without further explanation. She understood and wrote back that he should come!!! If music is a language, then this is proof. He tells her everything is tones and sounds in music." And so it sounds in the trio's playing of the famous theme. But once the theme is played through, they dash off in a microsecond on a completely unrelated, fast-paced free improvisation that constitutes the bulk of the track. Are they thumbing their noses at the lovely opening minute? They sound genuinely sincere when they play it straight, but the free minutes that follow could not be more different.

A second example is the stately, noble theme from the allegretto of Beethoven's seventh symphony. Couturier plays it lushly, accompanied by a low-end drum part by Humair. Both parts are great, but one might prefer to listen to Couturier without the distraction of the drums; a similar drum figure, meanwhile, sounds better when Humair plays it solo elsewhere, on "Lucretia."

Listening to the record raises the question of whether coherence—as pleasing as it can be—is in fact a necessary artistic goal. So the parts don't all go together all the time. It doesn't sound like the players on Tryptic consciously seek such a goal, dashing across traditions as they do, revering and flouting conventions in a single performance. In the meantime you'll hear flashes of sympathetic piano trio playing that will take you aback.

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