JAZZ PIANO TRIOS IN ACTION: SPUNKY AND INTIMATE

 

Three piano jazz trios recently graced Boston with performances that captivated the ear and inspired in fresh new ways.

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In early November, the intrepid young pianist Joey Alexander, (inspired from his appearances at Newport Jazz Festival, the White House and beyond) performed with his vivacious partners, Alexander Claffy on bass and Kyle Poole on drums, at the new room at Scullers Jazz Club (“Scullers”) [www.scullersjazz.com] in Cambridge, MA.

Scullers remains one of the most cherished spots in Boston to hear jazz in all its variety and richness. Its new room is larger than the old upstairs room and has a raised stage where musicians enter from a back room (in contrast to the old space where the stage was set at audience level and musicians entered through the audience allowing for some nice camaraderie). At the Alexander Trio show, the sound in the new room was clear and dynamic, with none of the overhang that was heard on occasion in the old room on bass plunges or low drum strikes. However, Alexander’s piano sounded slightly smaller and abbreviated in this new space. You could hear his notes distinctly as he played them at his keyboard, but those notes lacked warmth, resonance and natural harmonic weight. His piano lacked its full tonal palette. To be fair, this concert occurred early in the inaugural season of this new room at Scullers and there will be adjustments made by the excellent sound personnel in the house. It will be interesting to visit Scullers again soon to see how its new house sound is evolving.

As for the music delivered at this show, Alexander and his two partners delivered a set of  earnest grooves that covered the waterfront from bossa to the blues. Their collective ease in each other’s company was palpable. They concentrated their efforts on arrangements of material taken from Alexander’s new release, Countdown [Motema Records; www.motema.com] that was produced and recorded by many of the same personnel that produced Alexander’s stunning debut in 2015, My Favorite Things [Motema Records].

Both of these recordings have excellent sound characterized by an upfront presence and a tactile “you are there” feel to images and  dynamic action. On Countdown, acoustic basses (plied by the dynamic Larry Grenadier or Dan Chmiolinsky) are captured pungent and deep and those ethereal brush touches and spirited snare rolls generated by drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. (who never ceases to amaze!) are radiant and contagious.

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If you have had the good fortune to listen to Alexander’s whirligig of creativity on his debut My Favorite Things (his opening salvo on Coltrane’s Giant Steps or his carouse on the title track are brilliant) then you know what magic this young gifted musician can create. At his Scullers performance, Alexander explored some of the new terrain of Countdown with wide-eyed enthusiasm, with his band mates swashbuckling alongside. Their version of Alexander’s “Sunday Waltz,” (with its New Orleans’ feel for breezy chords and big bass flourishes), was spirited and sharp.  Claffy’s bass solo on this tune was melodic and softly purring, falling in step naturally with Alexander’s tightly focused chords in their circular groove. Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge” (also appearing on Countdown) took another turn on a slow bluesy romp, with Alexander softly pinpointing and isolating a few notes and light scampers, finding richness in the pleasure of a few notes sorted out and then mixed up again with sudden time shifts and quiet effervescent runs.

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In contrast to these opulent pieces, Alexander’s buoyancy at his keyboard, (with his special way with generating light-from-within grooves) was best illustrated by the trio’s launch into Countdown’s opening cut, “City Lights”- a propulsive beast of swirling colors and batten-down Latin-tinged grooves. Always looking to go against predictable flow, Alexander’s solo here rose and fell with feathered high notes and chunks of bass chords that bended and expanded upon the boisterous melody. Poole’s extended drum solo showed that he was up to the task: balancing sharp-shinned hits of wood rims and then striking out in all directions (like a sparkler in the dark) on all his drum surfaces. Alexander followed with his own lightning quick pounces to end the drama by rising from his piano to unfurl one arm in salute to the carnival rhythms of this piece and to his band mates’ delectable companionship. [Do check this same cut out on Countdown where Alexander, Grenadier and Owens razzle-dazzle to the rafters with fiery solos and collective heat that ends in a beautiful streak of soft cymbal decay from Owen’s kit].

 

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A few days after the Joey Alexander Trio show at Scullers, another creative jazz pianist of world renown, Jacky Terrasson, performed with his Trio in Cambridge, MA. at the Regattabar, [www.regattabarjazz.com] and gleefully sent his own global rhythms and infectious melodies soaring. Terrasson introduced his show by reporting that he had just returned from a trip to Madagascar and that he had only played once before with his two young companions on the Regattabar stage this evening: Jeremy Dutton on drums and Chris Smith on bass. Terrasson and his band mates then tore into a heady flourish of music that emphasized African lilting rhythms (with the warmth of Madagascar clearly an inspiration) and a flow into every far-flung corner of the jazz idiom: bluesy ballads, piquant bop, reggae flair and even a beautiful caressing waltz.

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Terrasson was a marvel at his keyboard utilizing every physical component of both his hands and his instrument to express his unbounded joyful creativity. He pounced on his keyboard with all the weight he could bare (on flat palms) to raise thunderous clouds of colors. He hit  the back of one piano key and then pell-mell hit the front of that same key to generate a frenetic trill. He gently sprayed his fingers along the inside strings of his piano in a meltingly sweet rhythm and then rapped his knuckles on the body of the piano to accompany his own finger snaps.

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With a full grin and proclaiming: “Here we go!” Terrasson ignited a piece that combined a blistering rock backbone with silky high piano runs – throwing in a little rumba theme to his creative stew. Both Dutton and Smith followed in Terrasson’s fleeting footsteps with beautiful synchronicity as Smith’s bass held a dynamic classical feel (his soloing meticulous in its spare notes and carefully placed skips, deep holds and repeats) while Dutton’s drumming was buoyant and tasteful. There was fortitude to all of this glorious music: fortitude in Terrasson’s unflinching feel for captivatingly simple melodies, in his global unity for far-flung influences and in his indefatigable spirit.

All of this spirited drama was ensnared by the excellent sound at the Regattabar this evening, produced by the Regattabar’s audio engineer, Wendyam Jean Edward Emerson.  Interestingly, Terrasson’s piano was positioned a bit differently for this concert: the open part of his piano faced into the room with Terrasson playing slightly off to the left side of the capacity audience seated all around him. With the sound of each note projected into the room (and with Emerson placing two mikes strategically close to the piano’s strings), each one of Terrasson’s creative notes (or soft player-piano caresses) were heard warm, resonant and with great tactile and individual presence.

Check out Terrasson’s 2002 recording, Smile [Blue Note; www.bluenote.com] which is one of my favorite Terrasson recordings in that it brings together Terrasson with his spirited rhythm section of drummer Eric Harland and bassist Sean Smith in an adventurous journey, recorded with vital presence and great imagery.

 

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Getting to the husk of simple melodies (steeped in the blues and other influences) is also the working palette of another young pianist’s voice on the jazz scene, New England Conservatory graduate Jarrett Cherner, who also plied the Regattabar’s piano in November with his artful partners Matt Aronoff on bass and Jason Burger on drums. In contrast to Terrasson’s pyro techniques and rousing propulsive presence, Cherner brings a meditative quiet to his beguiling world where the piano becomes less of a percussive instrument and more of a vehicle for light swinging facility and subtle touches (in exploration of melody). At the Regattabar, Cherner and his band built their meditative and fastidious program around a series of Cherner’s original “Meditations,” little gems of quiet soulful drama that appear on Cherner’s new trio release, Expanding Heart [BaldHill Records; www.jarrettcherner.com].

For instance, “Meditation #2 was an incandescent slow-brewing pool of marching notes, with piano, bass and drum unfurling in intertwining notes and phrases. This same bluesy air permeated Cherner’s ardent rendition of Otis Reading’s “I Got The Will” (which also appears on Expanding Heart) where the band worked on a tenacious plucky attack in slow grooving fashion.  Cherner used to gig at one of Cambridge’s landmark little blues clubs, the Cantab Lounge, [www.cantab-lounge.com] and that experience certainly illuminated his deep feel for the blues on both this Otis Reading tune as well as on his version of Ornette Coleman’s “Turnaround”. “Turnaround” was a highlight of the Regattabar show as Cherner cut loose in a radiant choice of quick notes and dynamic attack (concentrating in a small region of his piano’s midrange) with Arnoff’s walking bass lines and Berger’s deft snare/cymbal work urgent and grooving. A lightness of attack also permeated the crisp action of “Whispering” and “Distance,” the latter propelled by Cherner’s upswept notes and light runs. Here, silence and space allowed intimacy to bloom. The concert ended on Cherner’s “Meditation 3” ignited by Berger’s drum solo founded on inventive hits of his kit’s wood rims. This thicket of slowly crackling sounds led naturally down a path into the quiet glen of Cherner’s isolated piano notes: soft whirls and upturned phrases that sought the sunlight.

Nelson

Nelson

Nelson Brill is an avid music lover, who brings an audiophile perspective and a passion for the Arts to his reviews of live and recorded music. He has reviewed live concerts and recordings for many years for several online publications, including The Stereo Times and Harry Pearson’s HPSoundings. He has also been a contributing writer and reviewer for several other publications, including JAZZIZ magazine. His past writing for The Stereo Times also included many audiophile equipment reviews and he continues to evolve his own reference equipment to critically evaluate new recordings from an audiophile perspective. For Nelson, the joy of music is to be found everywhere and anywhere and Good Sound matters!

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