Jazz Piano Trio

This week I’d like to take a look at the jazz piano trio in particular.  For those of you not really into jazz but considering wading in deeper, this format is usually “listener friendly” in that you can keep track of what each musician is up to, even as they get creative and explore the musical spaces merely outlined by the basic tune.  At the same time, in this highly distilled format you still have everything you need for a wild ride to uncharted spaces, if the musicians choose to go there.

If jazz is America’s “classical music,” then the piano trio is probably the preeminent example of its “chamber music.”  The idea of pairing a piano with just a few other instruments goes back at least to Haydn and Mozart, although since the time of Beethoven classical composers have been hard pressed to maintain equality between the powerful voice of the piano and two other weaker instruments.  

In the realm of jazz, this problem has found a solution in matching the piano up with the bass and drums; in listening to jazz piano trio works many measure the success of the group’s performance by how well they address this potential problem as a team:  Is the performance merely a pianist and two backup musicians?  While this can be enjoyable, the form is capable of much more, when the musicians take turns in both the foreground and background, taking turns letting each other shine, drawing out the best of each other as their lines of melody, harmony, and rhythm interplay.

As a general rule of thumb, it would seem that since 1960 piano trios have become more interactive and democratic. Formerly, in the heyday of both swing and bop, the piano assumed a very dominant role where, it would have been fair to say, it was less a trio in the ideal sense of three equal parts, than it was piano PLUS bass and drums. The Bill Evans trio was critical towards pushing the envelope for a more democratic piano trio; now we can look to fine piano trios like those of Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau as their continued legacy. There will always be room for more straight-ahead swinging piano trios, where bass and drums play roles more defined as timekeeping and support for the pianist, but the arc points towards greater and greater interaction.  – Gerard Cox

The quote above comes from here, where you can also find thumbnail reviews of a number of great jazz piano trio albums for your consideration.

Dr Jerry Jerome, of the Rutgers University school of music provides a more detailed historical and music theory discussion of the form and the artists that have developed it here.  Well worth taking the time to read the whole thing, especially for those of you with a more musical background.  Here’s a snapshot:

The trio setting provides an intimate setting in which musicians can be maximally free and creative. The trio, often unconstrained by complicated arrangements or complex orchestration, is relatively free to spontaneously produce arrangements, dazzling improvisations, and interesting textures and interactions.

This article focuses upon one element of trio playing – contrapuntal melodic interplay. In this regard, trios tend to take one of three main approaches:
Main approaches
o    Melodically interactive
o    Melodically non-interactive
o    Somewhere in-between

Here’s one final essay on the trio format, its history and musical theory.  A taste:

Capable of both fragile, delicate finesse and pure, ferocious bombast, a great piano trio can turn on a dime, bringing forth great cresting waves of dense sound, then falling instantly to the merest murmur.

A really great piano trio will include three master storytellers, each also a master of theory and structure, rhythm and feeling: each wielding a laser-like technique and, perhaps most crucially, a surprising capacity, despite all this data-juggling, to focus their ears more on their companions than on themselves. For it is within the reactive field of energy that the true magic happens.

The trio of Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock, and Jack DeJohnette epitomizes the evolution of the piano trio. Like any great team, their success is attributable to two defining elements: what each brings to the music as an individual and how they coordinate as an ensemble.

If one accepts the premise that art is science assailed by inspiration, then Keith Jarrett possesses a mind of Newtonian magnitude.

But wait – There’s More!  With your Ginsu knives and salad spinner you can also receive:

Clayton Wright is a jazz pianist whose trio has a website with songs you can listen to and/or download, and a podcast to boot.

Tim Lyddon is another up-and-coming jazz pianist with a website where you can listen and/or buy.

“Google is your friend,” and if you Google “jazz piano trio” with additional words like “mp3,” “podcast,” “history,” “musical theory,” or whatever direction you choose to explore you’ll likely find links to something interesting.  Let us know about it if you do!

Specific artists / names to check out

There are lots of people I could mention who have performed in the piano trio format at least part of their careers, so here is a limited list; anyone in this list is a well-known figure worth checking out.  Please let me know if I’ve forgotten someone:

Kenny Barron, Chick Corea, Bill Evans, Vince Guaraldi (of “Peanuts” TV special music fame), Ahmad Jamal, Keith Jarrett, Ramsey Lewis, Marion McPartland, Brad Mehldau, Oscar Peterson, McCoy Tyner, Thelonius Monk

Who is your favorite?  Why?

Help Booman pay the rent on this nightclub

Use the link on this site to go to Powell’s Books and check out their selection of jazz books.  From the main page, use the link in the long list on the left to go to Jazz, Jazz Biography, or Jazz Songbooks.  

Since Amazon.com is on the BuyBlue bad-boy list, does anyone have an online site they can recommend for CD purchases?  Or do I have to keep haunting eBay?

Wynton Marsalis Interview – TV Concert for Katrina Victims on PBS Tomorrow

Highly recommended:  There’s a very good extended interview with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis in the British paper The Independent today (here).  The story closes by mentioning that tomorrow there will be a concert for Katrina victims on PBS tomorrow:

Tomorrow, Jazz at Lincoln Center will present a relief benefit concert entitled Higher Ground, which will be televised live to every corner of the United States. Those who have agreed to take the stage include Bill Cosby, Robert De Niro, Renée Fleming, Herbie Hancock, Norah Jones, Bette Midler, Toni Morrison, Paul Simon, Meryl Streep, Robin Williams – and Wynton Marsalis. Yes, presidential stuff.

‘All Rise’ [Marsalis’ 90-minute mammoth jazz/classical/choral work discussed in the linked story] starts a five-date UK tour on 30 September at Symphony Hall, Birmingham. Its London performance is at the Royal Albert Hall, London SW7, on 2 October.

Recent / Current Jazz Birthdays:

I’ve added links to the birthdays this time, in case you want to learn more about that person.

11 September:    Harry Connick, Jr. – Pianist, vocalist, and citizen of New Orleans.  Born 1967.

[Wouldn’t it be awful to have your birthday on September 11?  My older son’s birthday is December 7, and we tease him that it’s “a day that will live in infamy.”  But we can’t tease him too much, as that’s also the date my wife and I got engaged (two years earlier). LOL]

12 September:    Scott Hamilton – Saxophonist (not the Olympic ice skater).  Born 1954.

15 September:    Cannonball Adderley – Saxophonist.  Born 1928.

16 September:    Charlie Byrd – Guitarist.  Born 1925.
B. B. King  Blues Guitarist Extraordinaire.  Also Born 1925.
        Earl Klugh – Guitarist.  Born 1954.

(How’s that for synchronicity, eh?  Almost enough to make me believe in astrology.)

23 September:    John Coltrane – Saxophonist.  Born 1926.
        Les McCann – Pianist.  Born 1935.

24 September:    John Carter – Clarinetist.  Born 1929.

Till next time: Keep the spirit of New Orleans alive – go listen to some jazz (live, if possible).

PS – Thanks to all who voted in the poll on my blog name change.  Unfortunately, Mrs. Dem in Knoxville did not like Progressive in Knoxville and its unfortunate acronym PinK at all, so I went with Knoxville Progressive (aka Knox aka KP) instead, so y’all would still know who I am.  😉

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