Intakt CD 070

Piano trios featuring bass and drums have, since at least the late 1940s, been the proving ground and identity test for jazz keyboardists. With the overhanging monuments of Oscar Peterson’s and Bill Evans’s trios at either extreme of the landscape, it seems that every mainstream pianist worth his Steinway has to stake his or her claim in that terrain.

Yet the challenge of subverting this accepted formation is such, that even iconoclastic figures like Misha Mengelberg, Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols have also recorded this way. Marilyn Crispell too, along with other formations, has made a variety of piano trio discs with such partners as bassists Barry Guy, Mark Dresser and Reggie Workman, most often with drummer Gerry Hemingway. Right now, in fact, her two recent anemic outings on ECM with famed bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Paul Motion have come closer to giving her mainstream fame than anything she’s ever done before.

So why is ODYSSEY different than other trio discs? Well, for a start it’s better.

British bassist Guy and drummer Paul Lytton are without doubt two of the most accomplished practitioners on their instruments. The other reason actually turns the whole trio equation on its head. Look closely at the musicians’ billing and who wrote most of the compositions and you’ll realize that this is actually an unconventional date under the leadership of Guy. But like Charles Mingus’s 1957 trio session with pianist Hampton Hawes and drummer Dannie Richmond, the bassist who usually leads large orchestras or works in smaller groups sans piano has decided to try this formation on for size.

Of the five Guy compositions, two, “Double Trouble Too” and “Harmos” are miniaturizations of longer pieces recorded by the bassist-led London Jazz Composers Orchestra in 1995 and 1989 respectively, the first of which also featured Crispell and Swiss pianist Irène Schweizer improvising from the piano benches.

On this version the pianist appears to be playing a straight line of repetitive classical arpeggios, while the bassist decorates the unhurried theme with dark, reverberating arco lines, with the drummer chiming in occasionally and mostly literally shaking the metallic portions of his kit. More obtuse, “Harmos” begins with Lytton abstractly testing the limits of his percussion, as Guy uses his bass skills to produce multi-string, guitar-like strumming. When Crispell enters about half way through, liming the theme with both hands, you get the feeling that there’s a traditional folk ballad lurking somewhere within the tune, just waiting to be discovered.

Judging from the shared compositional credits, three other tunes appear to be studio-created instant compositions. Considering all, especially the jocularly-titled

“Heavy Metal” depends to some extent on Lytton exposing the more jagged and sharper parts of his drum kit he’s in the spotlight. One technique he has developed involves scratching some object across his cymbals with such aim that the resulting, prolonged buzz starts to resemble real-time electronics.

However the real essence of the session comes in Guy’s three other compositions. Intriguingly-titled, on the surface “Rags”, written expressly for the disc, has about as much relation to Scott Joplin’s work as it does to cleaning cloths. Although Crispell plays with a sort of rough delicacy, she often appears to be barely touching the keys, sliding across them like a figure skater on ice. Except that is for a point near the beginning where she introduces glissandos that actually sound as if she’s playing a real harp rather than the piano innards. Except for the odd thump, Lytton appends fuzzy reverberations rather than straightforward drumming here, as Guy intricately builds his accompaniment by flexing the four bass strings away from the body and neck.

With “Celestial” on the other hand, the pianist appears to be in the middle of a 19th century Impressionism recital, playing in slow motion, while producing protracted flourishes of ominous-sounding chords. Again Lytton and Guy construct circles of creative counter melodies around her solo. Shards of drum clatter pierce the melody, while the bassist somehow manages to force the strings of his bull fiddle into a higher register so that it sounds at times like a dobro or a Hawaiian guitar.

More sombre, the title tune seems to wrap up all the extended techniques used by the three in the other compositions, with Lytton subtly accenting the proceedings and, Guy ranging all over his bass strings. Throughout, Crispell languidly spins out well-measured, but not precious piano tones that sound both traditional, yet quietly dissonant.

With writing that’s all sharp corners and sinuous movement, Guy manages to keep the tunes vigorous and alive with momentum. This way he not only forestalls the lackadaisical somnolence that infected the pianist on those sessions with Motion and Peacock, but he shows how he can adapt and refine his music for the type of traditional piano trio that he hasn’t been involved with since the 1970s.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Double Trouble Too 2. Odyssey 3. Heavy Metal 4. Spike 5. Rags 6. Luna 7.elestial 8. Blade 9. Harmos

Personnel: Marilyn Crispell (piano); Barry Guy (bass); Paul Lytton (percussion)