Jazz in 2014: Piano Trios

Welcome back! It’s been a while, but it’s time for another series of music-related posts. One month, four playlists, 32 tracks, and hopefully lots of new discoveries. As opposed to Top Tracks 2013 from last year, this series is much more focused and will exclusively feature jazz. Or jazz-related music. Or other kinds of music played by jazz musicians. I’m not going to get too caught up in what is jazz, what isn’t, or if it’s even cool anymore. Frankly, that’s all a little boring. So let’s just say that it’ll feature a collection of songs and artists that might be traced back to a common ancestor with a certain degree of ease.

So this begs the question: Why jazz? Simply put, it’s one of the few major genres that has consistently grabbed my attention this year as doing anything particularly exciting. I should quickly point out though that I’m by no means a jazz expert at all. Sure, I’ve dipped my toes, but not enough to have a deeper appreciation of where a piece of music might sit within the broader jazz tradition or even within the artist’s own repertoire. This appreciation would obviously be great to have, but I’m more concerned with the simple question of: Is this a good song? If yes, then it makes the playlist. The mission remains the same as before. If I can introduce just one person to a new song or artist that they love, then it’s mission accomplished for me. If I can also convince another person that jazz maybe isn’t as boring as they thought, then that’s a huge bonus.

For this first playlist, we have eight piano trios. By way of context, the piano trio in jazz typically consists of piano, bass, and drums. As you will see though, this lineup is not strict and any other instrument may be substituted into the mix instead of bass and/or drums. Furthermore, while the sub-genre may be named after the piano, this instrument is rarely the focal point since there is usually a greater emphasis on the tight interplay between the three musicians as a single unit. The short-lived Bill Evans trio is perhaps the most famous example of a great piano trio and the obvious place to start if you want to dive further back into the history of the tradition.

Hiromi (The Trio Project)

From: Alive
Country: Japan / US / UK
Time: 9:04
Listen: YouTube
First up, we have a grand opening by pianist Hiromi Uehara and her Trio Project, with Anthony Jackson on contrabass guitar and Simon Phillips on the drum kit. This may be a somewhat risky piece to open this series since it might not be the most welcoming of compositions. Indeed, I found myself a little overwhelmed upon first listen. Rest assured though, things shouldn’t get much more complex than this over the coming month so please don’t let it scare you away too soon! Despite her technical brilliance and intricate songwriting, Hiromi consistently delivers interesting melodies throughout her playing. She is also in very good company here with Jackson and Phillips, who are both just as important as the piano in terms of propelling the music forward. This is their third album together as a trio, and it certainly shows in their unity. Despite what you may have previously been led to believe, jazz isn’t dead. It doesn’t even smell funny anymore. According to Hiromi and friends, it’s well and truly alive.

GoGo Penguin
“Garden Dog Barbecue”

From: v2.0
Country: UK
Time: 3:44
Listen: YouTube
Keeping things moving forwards at a steady pace is Manchester trio GoGo Penguin. Citing a diverse range of influences such as Aphex Twin, Shostakovich, and Massive Attack, the band offers a completely fresh take on what to expect from a jazz trio. They even get a little glitchy towards the end of “One Percent”, another one of the many highlights on their latest album. In some ways they remind me a lot of rising trio BADBADNOTGOOD with their blend of contemporary and more established styles. While GoGo Penguin may not be receiving the same level of hype as BBNG, they seem to be gaining traction in their home country with recognition as part of the Barclaycard Mercury Prize ‘Albums of the Year’ shortlist.

The Bad Plus
“Gold Prisms Incorporated”

From: Inevitable Western
Country: US
Time: 6:28
Listen: YouTube
Established in 2000, US trio The Bad Plus have been continually exploring how to make jazz more accessible to the masses while still maintaining the complexity inherent in the genre. This is best reflected in their growing catalogue of pop and rock covers, such as their slippery cover of Nirvana’s “Smell’s Like Teen Spirit” which was my first point of introduction to the band. This album is all originals though and each member of the group shares songwriting duties equally, acting as a reminder that the rhythm section is just as important as the piano in a jazz trio. Together they have managed to record an album enjoyable for both jazz aficionados and casual listeners alike. As if this wasn’t enough, the band also released their challenging interpretation of The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky earlier in the year, which is also well worth a listen.

Mammal Hands
“Street Sweeper”

From: Animalia
Country: UK
Time: 3:14
Listen: YouTube
One of these things is not like the others. Technically still a piano trio, Mammal Hands substitutes saxophone into the mix instead of bass. This obviously gives them a significantly different sound compared to most standard trios, and they could probably be more accurately described as a jazz quartet minus the bass. Whichever way you want to label them though, it still stands that they have produced a very impressive debut album with Animalia. It turns out that they were partly discovered by the bassist of fellow British trio GoGo Penguin featured above, who introduced them to Matthew Halsall (also to be featured in a later post), who immediately signed them to his Gondwana Records label. It’s good to know that contemporary jazz is in good hands with such a promising pool of emerging bands.

John Zorn
“Tender Buttons”

From: In The Hall Of Mirrors
Country: US
Time: 4:51
Listen: N/A
Warning: There will be a lot of John Zorn featured in these playlists. It’s unavoidable with 14 albums released to his name this year, plus another three instalments of his ongoing Masada Book 2: The Book of Angels series. ‘Prolific’ is an understatement when it comes to Zorn. This release finds him experimenting with the jazz trio format. Pianist Stephen Gosling rises to the challenge of Zorn’s precisely notated compositions with enthusiasm and impressive skill throughout the six tracks. The rhythm section is just as impressive though, with longtime Zorn collaborator Greg Cohen on bass and relative newcomer Tyshawn Sorey on the kit. They both display a strong sensitivity to the compositions as they switch seamlessly between wonderfully manic and delicately restrained as required.

Majamisty TriO
“Coolah Trance”

From: Love
Country: Serbia
Time: 7:39
Listen: YouTube
The Majamisty TriO deliver a confidently refined sound on their sophomore album Love. Pianist and primary songwriter Maja Alvanović combines her rich experience in classical music with her affinity for jazz to create a sound that is clean, yet highly expressive. This track “Coolah Trance” is particularly infectious with its Latin-tinged rhythms in the opening section before eventually shifting into quite a different tone entirely. I like to think of it as a soundtrack to the first ever manned hot air balloon flight: opening fanfare, lots of dancing, a successful lift-off, gently soaring amongst the clouds, a treacherous landing, ominous uncertainty, and then a final celebration for a successful flight. Or maybe that’s just me.

“Differently, Still”

From: III
Country: Canada
Time: 4:43
Listen: YouTube
We’re nearing the end of the playlist now. Night has fallen, it’s getting dark, and it’s time to bring out the cool jazz. BADBADNOTGOOD are one of the hottest things in the genre at the moment thanks to their thoroughly modern fusion of jazz with other contemporary influences (plus a little help from a number of high-profile champions such as Tyler, The Creator and Frank Ocean). After flirting with original material on their second album in 2012, the band now offers their first full album penned entirely by the three young members. It’s a natural progression of their unique identity established already, but also surprisingly mature. Take this track “Differently, Still” for example. Here they shed all expectations one may have from their hip hop influences and offer a very traditional tune which sounds like it’s from a jazz trio that has been playing together for decades. There’s a lot of hype surrounding the group, and for good reason. Luckily they seem to be taking it in their stride and continue to deliver surprises. Next up is a full-length collaboration with Wu-Tang Clan member Ghostface Killah due in early 2015.

“Everything Passes, Even the Trees”

From: The Bell Garden
Country: Israel
Time: 6:48
Listen: YouTube
Appropriately translating to ‘three’ in Hebrew, Shalosh offer yet another fresh take on the piano trio format. Based between both Jerusalem and Brooklyn, their mission is to “make you feel” and their debut album certainly covers a diverse range of moods. “Everything Passes, Even the Trees” perhaps best distills their sound into a single track. It’s quietly reflective to begin with but then unexpectedly explodes into a full-blown dance party in the finale. It’s one of the most startling shifts in tone I’ve heard all year and brings a smile each time I hear it. It’s clear that Shalosh want you to feel not only the sombre side of things, but also the joy. Discoveries such as this band make all of this work worthwhile for me.

Thanks for reading! Find more posts from this series below:

7 thoughts on “Jazz in 2014: Piano Trios

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