Stride Magazine -

  Two Sides of The Trio

Esbjorn Svensson Trio: Strange Place For Snow (ACT 9011-2)
Simon Nabatov Trio: Three Stories, One End (ACT 9401-2)

There have been many different ways to explore the dynamics and conventions of the piano trio. For example, I’ve recently been enjoying the works of Bill Evans, Jarrett, Cecil Taylor and Bud Powell. All have distinct approaches. Now these recent cds from the German company ACT offer two fairly disparate views.

The latest cd from the Swedish trio, usually known as EST, offers some interesting takes on the music a piano trio can produce. Both drummer, Magnus Ostrom and bassist, Dan Berglund make strong contributions to the overall sound and shape of the performances.

At times they are fairly conventional, with opening track ‘The Message’ having a restrained gospel flavour and shades of Jarrett in the muffled ‘vocalising’ that accompanies parts of the piece. The title track has all three players working out around the main theme, with crisp minimalist drumming and some evidence of ‘treatment’ on the piano strings. There is space created and whilst it isn’t radical it does blur the edges of what a piano trio might sound like.

Their longer ‘Behind The Yashmak’ has an intro where bass and fragments of keyboard float and collide in a sort of suspension. As well as piano Svensson adds a colourful layer of electric keyboard which introduces an unusual texture. Again I could hear shades of Jarrett but from his Impulse days rather than the Standards Trio. Maybe that’s something to do with the bass and piano interplay. However, after the intro the track builds in a different way, applying growing volume to fairly minimalist material with chiming keyboards, busy percussion and strident bass. As it reaches a crescendo it stops abruptly as though someone threw a switch to end the recording.

There are moments of breath-taking tenderness too and one of the most satisfying of the ballads here is ‘Bound For The Beauty Of The South’. It is a restrained and melodic excursion that could easily have escaped from an ECM album. The proceedings get more heated again on ‘When God Created The Coffeebreak’ with rushing, classically-inclined piano lines that  sometimes become more angular and jagged. Again, not exactly a piano jazz trio unless it’s the sort led by someone such as Jacques Loussier. 

The final track ‘Carcrash’ starts off  sedately with brushed skins and Svensson coaxing some Jarrett-like improvisation from his keyboard. However, this develops into a section of muted chimes which appear to close the track in a somewhat soporific style. But if you leave the cd on you hear something that bears some resemblance to the track’s title but little to a conventional jazz trio. The fuzzy, industrial howlings and thunderous percussion owe more to Faust than anything else. That’s fine by me but it may surprise anyone lulled by the false ending. And it’s not over yet, but I’ll leave you to listen and see what else there is.

Simon Nabatov, Tom Rainey and Drew Gress offer another perspective on the piano trio, mixing Nabatov’s compositions with those of Monk, Rollins and Coltrane among others. His tunes vary from the light, precise swing of the title track, with some supple bass from Gress, to the long ‘Groofta’ which has its moments but, for me, loses focus and seems to break down into a slightly directionless ramble. The closing track ‘Wish I Were There’ is a straight ahead ballad with the pianist showing great delicacy and restraint, teasing nuances out of the melody. His approach to Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’ is similarly quite understated and takes the familiar theme at a slow pace.

He isn’t always so light of touch. On ‘For Herbie’ he starts with fluid, mercurial lines then develops a jagged attack which builds up to a more two-handed, percussive approach which climaxes in slabs of left hand chords and torrents of fractured notes. His take on ‘Epistrophy’ isn’t much like any of  Monk’s but has an eerie, spacious opening out of which cascades of notes appear. He seems to favour a blend of the wistful and dramatic as he makes his way around the piece, glancing at the theme in passing.  I like his use of such dynamics but I have to beg to differ with the liner notes since they state he doesn’t ‘monopolise the musical goings-on’. He may not mean to but he does.

This is a very powerful demonstration of a trio led by the pianist and it is no reflection on the other two players’ abilities. They do take brief solos and on Rollins’ ‘St Thomas’ they make a more noticeable contribution to the accents and shadings of this version of the calypso, particularly Rainey and his light, dancing percussion. Again though, it becomes a piano tour de force as Nabatov pounds at the rhythms. My overall impression is one of an ebullient pianist who is fascinating to listen to whilst over-shadowing his sidemen in the process. Three stories, one dominant character ?

© Paul Donnelly 2002