The Art of The Trio


First, there is Air. The sound of Air is subtle. Some would describe it as silence, pure and simple. But those on stage, and many in the audience, can hear its low buzz, its promise. Then, perhaps slowly, perhaps in a rush, sound moves the Air, pushing it this way and that, and the concert has begun.

Sometimes it's easier to feel the Air's movement. Trumpets, trombones, saxophones all require their handlers to push the air through them and we sense this. It's comforting in a way, being able to feel the Air so easily.

But, no matter the sound's source, the Air moves. We may not always think of it this way, especially if the ensemble is made up of what we view as essentially percussion instruments. Yet a string stretched to precise pitch and made to vibrate, a drumhead stretched to the player's desired tuning, these move the Air in ways that can be, in their elusiveness, more mysterious. And if the movers of the Air are true masters, well then...

The standard jazz trio holds an undeniable fascination for aficionados of musically improvised Art. Much of its allure is due to the essential perfection of these three sounds joined. Each voice distinct from its counterparts, yet somehow forming as natural a complement as one could imagine. After all, western music usually comprises three basic strata: something on top (melody), something on the bottom (a bass line), and something in the middle (harmony). Add rhythm (don't forget rhythm!) and you may be in business. The trio, or Rhythm Section, is one of the purest distillations of these requisite elements; capable of both fragile, delicate finesse and pure, ferocious bombast, a great piano trio (as it is usually, though perhaps unfairly, referred to) 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 crucial, a suprising 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 this storied grouping. Like any great team, their success is attributable to two defining elements: what each brings to the music as an individual and their subsequent coordination as an ensemble.

If one accepts the premise that Art is science assailed by inspiration, Keith Jarrett possesses a mind of Newtonian magnitude. One of the absolute prerequisites for greatness in jazz is a mastery of the science of melody. Weaving together lines of melodic thought, whether simple or complex, requires both deep study of an infinite number of patterns and the ability to be your own best editor. With the advent of be-bop, the improvised jazz melody attained new levels of gyrating complexity; in the half-century-plus since, the art of melodic generation has assumed new dimensions of depth. Combining an uncanny sense of simplicity and lyricism with a seemingly boundless instinct for connecting, extending and overlapping densely figured phrases, Jarrett embodies the current extent of supreme melodic thinking. The reality, often overlooked, is that to achieve this also requires acute contrapuntal thought.

Western harmony has evolved into a mind-boggling system of "simultaneous soundings", or "chords": tens of thousands of formulae for constructing stacks of coincidently played notes, ranging from the most banal pop cliches to the most advanced 20th century orchestral works. But when this harmonic system was first being assembled, it was all linear. The emerging science of counterpoint literally laid down rules ensuring that tones occurring at the same moment wouldn't be offensive to the ear (dissonance) but rather would be pleasing (consonance). The music in question was, at first, composed almost exclusively for the human voice (which of course can sing only one note at a time.) Even when composition began expanding to include other instruments they were similarly restricted. The result was an evolving system of individual lines, which worked together to make the overall picture.

The wonderful thing about purely linear counterpoint is the sense of inner movement, which it imparts. Even dense clusters of harmony are "dimensionalised" by who (or what) are making the individual sounds/tones.

The piano's orchestral nature allows pianists, should they so choose, to conceive seemingly dense information this way (multiply horizontal as opposed to singularly vertical). The problem is, well, it's really hard to do. As Jarrett himself has pointed out, the human brain suffers when trying to isolate more than two strains of ongoing thought. That doesn't prevent him from employing the concept, though.

That he can then imbue his playing with such richness of personality is only partly attributable to purity of emotion; the same formidable technique required to execute Bach-like linear content allows its owner to literally sculpt with dynamics and articulation, often changing hands in the middle of a line. For example, a typical Jarrett phrase will sweep upwards and, as it ascends, increase in volume, peak, and then get softer as it descends. This kind of dynamic control is rare; it imparts an actual sense of physical gesture to the line. The truth is that Jarrett isn't really playing "the piano" – he's playing music and it just happens that the piano is the vehicle for his expression.

With fluid intuition and extraordinary "centered-ness" Gary Peacock brings an almost balletic equilibrium to his navigation of the defining role played by the bass. Bassists face the reality that there are certain tasks only they can carry out: specifying the roots of chords supplies the crucial foundation upon which the greater harmonic structure sits. In its more utilitarian days this was just about all the bass did. Those days are long gone, however, and modern playing demands that bassists be intimately conversant with melodic language as well. Peacock is one of the only contemporary bassists to have achieved such a high level of integration between these dual requirements; his concept of root movement is itself startlingly melodic, which he augments by displaying a true genius for artfully inserting colorful middle harmonies that elude most bassists. This approach results in a sort of "sympathetic independence" which distinguishes the greatest bass playing.

And then there's the groove. "Groove" is a concept commonly over-simplified and misunderstood, perhaps because much of the time simplicity constitutes the best choice even for a musician of vastly expansive insight and knowledge. Make no mistake: "groove" is not only infinitely deep as a concept, it's also totally applicable to very complex musical forms and contexts. No drummer today brings more wisdom and sensitivity to this aspect of playing than Jack Dejohnette. As melodically conscious as a drummer can be (he's also a great pianist and composer), Dejohnette's playing portrays the duality of the drumset: it is both one unified thing and an organized body of completely individual instruments. Like both of his companions, he combines astounding technical ability with a wizardly rhythmic philosophy matched to an astute composer's mind. (Check out the groove on "Too Young To Go Steady" from the trio's third record, "Standards Live"; it would be hard to find a better example of simplicity, soulfulness and keen intelligence resulting in a perfect rhythmic groove.)

As one might imagine, wedding three such individually strong personas carries no absolute guarantee of success. Jazz history is replete with stories of personality clashes and bad ego management. For a three-man ensemble to endure and prosper as this one has there must exist not only fervent mutual respect and willingness to compromise; there must be a common vision of what makes the music meaningful and a collective intention which can realize that vision. Straddling the line between such abundant virtuosity and the need to proffer an engaging storyline requires a great deal of patience, generosity and, above all, focus.

There’s no better demonstration of this cooperative spirit than the graciousness with which Peacock and Dejohnette bow to Jarrett's obvious thematic leadership. His ingenious introductions, segues and spontaneously carved codas define much of this ensemble's character.

Another of the trio's great strengths, much overlooked, is their extreme cunning in the area of tempo selection. The metronome represents an even spectrum of tempi, but many jazz groups tend to ignore subtle gradations of pulse, resulting in gravitation toward certain "pockets": fast tempos are always this fast, medium tempos always settling in one comfortably familiar spot, ballad tempos especially uniform. This trio has a unique awareness of total tempo environment, often choosing to nestle between the stock settings that lesser groups seem fixed upon. These seminal calibrations are intrinsic to the trio’s ability to conjure such singular nuances of color and feeling. Or to look at it another way, they're a huge part of why these guys swing their asses off.

Over time these three artists have evolved, both individually and as a unit. Their repertoire has altered to include what might best be called "non-standard standards", pieces that are certainly standards in the jazz world but aren't from the Great American Songbook. Now you get to hear Bud Powell, Thelonius Monk and Clifford Brown mixed in with Cole Porter, Harold Arlen and Rodgers & Hart. No matter which direction they turn, their versatility allows them to find themselves within the music and place their own mark upon it, and upon us. Their playing is, at its best, a beacon; a rallying cry to excellence and a reminder to all that, to paraphrase Jarrett, the Air is going to get moved around anyway, why not move it consciously? Although "Come Fly With Me" has never appeared in their programming (not on record, anyway) the Air is certainly "rarified" in the "up there" to which they transport us.


June 2002 edition | by Laurence Hobgood |
Winner of the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for the year's outstanding music journalism.

Sharon ReavesComment