GREGG BENDIAN’S TRIO PIANISSIMO

GREGG BENDIAN’S TRIO PIANISSIMO Change
Aggregate AGCD 004

TRIPTYCH MYTH
The Beautiful
AUM Fidelity AUM 035

Triptych Myth and Trio Pianissimo suggest the parameters of these discs – the classic jazz piano trio – but second glances reveal subtle differences. Innately traditionalist projects, the CDs feature two trios putting a POMO stamp on a configuration which has been an unvarying modern jazz staple for at least 50 years.

With seven of the 10 compositions his and his only instrument the 88s, THE BEAUTIFUL seems designed to prove that pianist Cooper-Moore can function in a semi-conventional environment as an equal part of a three-sided equation. Preceding the band’s name with his own on the other hand, percussionist Gregg Bendian gives notice that although oriented around pianist Steve Hunt, CHANGE reflects Bendian’s ideas. Except for Thelonious Monk’s “Gallop’s Gallop” and a brief Hunt-penned prelude, the drummer also wrote all the material.

Both CDs have to be taken on their own merits without referencing the six musicians’ other work. Hunt’s usual milieu is jazz-rock with the Mahavishnu Project and British guitarist Allan Holdsworth; bassist John Lockwood has worked with Boston’s microtonal reedist Joe Maneri and The Fringe; and Bendian has seconded everyone from guitarist Derek Bailey and pianist Cecil Taylor, while leading fusion style band. Still, the output here, except for a couple of memorable tracks at the end, is a throwback to the trio efforts of Ahmad Jamal, Red Garland and Oscar Peterson.

Ditto for Triptych Myth. Although the elasticity of time and architecture in the tunes is less conservative than Trio Pianissimo’s, you wouldn’t know by listening that drummer Chad Taylor often plays with post-jazz-rockers like guitarist Jeff Parker and cornetist Rob Mazurek, not to mention AACM founder saxophonist Fred Anderson; and that Tom Abbs is one of the busiest New York downtowners playing with everyone from the Jump Orchestra to trombonist Steve Swell. As for those familiar with Cooper-Moore’s frenetic soloing on piano and his many home-made instruments, very little of that is in evidence. It’s his Hank Jones, not Jaki Byard personality on show.

As a matter of fact, except for the striking Cooper-Moore line that is “Spiraling Out”, most of the advanced improvisations appear on the three penultimate compositions. Replete with street-drill drumming, cascading arpeggios and double-timed harmonies from the pianist, that tune evolves in two separate lines, as if one of the players was swimming underwater while the others crest the waves. Following dynamic emphasis from Taylor mixed with Monk-like key clipping from Cooper-Moore, the layering gradually dissolves.

“Poppa’s Gin in the Chicken Feed” would have worked better with an organic dissolve rather than a track fade out, however. A blues ballad rather than the down-home lament the title implies, the piece, perhaps celebrating the pianist’s rural Virginia background, encompasses passionate stop-time chording from Cooper-Moore plus cymbal spanks and vibrations from the drummer.

If Abbs seems underutilized he makes up for it on “Last Minute Trip Part One” and “Last Minute Trip Part Two” and his own “Trident”. Native-Indian-like tom-tom sounds from Taylor, and cross-handed, hocketing tones from the pianist, leave enough space for the bassist to output wood-rending bass patterns and scrapping sul ponticello lines on the first two pieces – actually a brief intro and the composition itself. Contrapuntal, the second line contrasts thick abrasive strokes from the bassman with stick shuffling from the drummer and a rippling, understated piano touch.

Considering balladic numbers such as “Frida K. The Beautiful” and “Pooch (for Wilber Morris)”, pay tribute to the deceased Mexican painter and late New York bassist respectively, these and other unassuming pieces often barely skirt conventionality with polyrhythms plus cross-handed paradiddles from the drummer. Overall, as well, except for passages in other tunes where Cooper-Moore’s voicing is staccato and Abbs’ portamento, the images conjured up are those of Wynton Kelly and Paul Chambers on a 1950s recording date.

One of the most accomplished trios to see and hear in full-flight, the many exceptional portions of THE BEAUTIFUL call out for a live CD of the band.

Probably too occupied with many other projects to often play live, Trio Pianissimo’s second CD is similarly uneven. For a start, although they may have an ulterior purpose the four, less-then-two-minute interludes, do little but showcase Bendian’s imposing drum skill, which is as obvious on the longer tracks.

A threnody, like Cooper-Moore’s “Pooch”, Bendian’s “To Ben Riley” probably approximates the late drum master’s method. Yet when the three follow that tune with a version of “Gallop’s Gallop”, written by Thelonious Monk – Riley’s best-known employer – the effect is unsettling. Taken at a higher pitch than Monk preferred, the constantly moving bass and drums are more upfront, while Hunt’s smooth arpeggio unrolling is a mite too clean.

Other tracks are more notable. Again, like Triptych Myth, the most outstanding pieces come in the second half of the program. There’s “Sleep & Dream” for instance, where after a vibraphone introduction, Bendian creates contrapuntal echoes from wire brushes, tinkling bells and vibes to encase the bowed bass and atmospheric piano fills.

More Monk-like than the Monk tune, “Knot Grass” features twice-played ascending piano chords, a walking bass and lively harmonies. Steadily diminishing repetitive chords from Hunt make up the finale, which at the turn around modulates downwards, as Bendian’s drumming becomes more ferocious.

Lastly, there’s “Torrents”, the nearly-18-minute final track, obviously designed as a major statement. As exploratory as the earlier pieces are firmly in the piano-trio tradition, it showcases all three players. Demonstrating wooden block pounding, bass drum smacks and hollow resonation from other percussion, Bendian mixes it up with an undercurrent of shuffle bowing from Lockwood and seemingly random note selection from one hand and piston-like pumping from Hunt’s other hand. As his staccato lines congeal into rock-hard chords, the pianist’s outlay turns dissonant. For every high-frequency keyboard pulse there’s an equivalent echoing bass pluck and acoustic resonation from Bendian. When cymbal strokes set up yet another variation, Hunt introduces a speedier, baroque-style mode with concentrated glissandi and splayed notes. The ultimate variation concludes with more bowing bass, ferocious bounces and ruffs from the drummer and descending piano chords, which peter out, only to resurface as a brusque, five-second Monk homage.

Unfortunately, too many of the other tracks appear content to linger in conventional jazz piano-trio territory. A fine, but flawed effort, like the other CD, CHANGES too misses first rank. Perhaps if the tine between the trio’s next effort and this one is condensed from the five years gap between this one and its predecessor that situation could be overcome.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Beautiful: 1. All Up In It 2. Frida K. The Beautiful 3. Trident 4. Spiraling Out 5. Pooch (for Wilber Morris) 6. A Time To 7. Last Minute Trip Part One 8. Last Minute Trip Part Two 9. Poppa’s Gin in the Chicken Feed 10. Robina Pseudoacacia

Personnel: Beautiful: Cooper-Moore (piano); Tom Abbs (bass); Chad Taylor (drums)

Track Listing: Change: 1. Statement 2. Ice Blue 3. Prelude 4. She Knows 5. Glancing 6. Knot Grass 7. Sleep & Dream 8. To Ben Riley 9. Gallop’s Gallop 10. Torrents

Personnel: Change Steve Hunt (piano); John Lockwood (bass); Gregg Bendian (drums and percussion)