String Trio of New York

The River of Orion: 30 Years Running
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What began as an anomaly has, after more than three decades of evolution, become an institution. Yet, as the String Trio of New York (STNY)’s The River of Orion demonstrates, innovation and musical smarts still are still paramount in the group. These are expressed in two distinctive suites.

Guitarist James Emery’s title track is a nine-part investigation of what could probably be called Chamber Improv. Bassist John Lindberg’s five miniatures grouped under the title “Journey Platz” show off another side of the trio and could easily be labeled Chamber Swing.

When Emery and Lindberg founded the STNY with violinist Billy Bang in 1977, the instrumentation seemed shocking at a time when raise-the-roof Energy Music or beat-shackled Fusion Jazz was the norm. Going its own way, the STNY almost single-handedly defined modern chamber improvisation, with echoes of New music as well as the jazz tradition in its work. The band did have some up-and-down periods after Bang left and was replaced by a parade of other fiddlers. Yet Rob Thomas, who joined the group full time in 2001, has added needed stability, bringing to STNY not only flawless technique, but also the versatility that allows him to also gig with ensembles ranging from The Jazz Passengers and the Mahavishnu Project on one hand, to those fronted by Tito Puente or Aretha Franklin on the other.

Emery and Lindberg too have other strings in their bows, with the guitarist playing with everyone from Klangforum Wien, reedist Marty Ehrlich and drummer Gerry Hemingway; and the bassist working with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, saxophonist Larry Ochs and drummer Kevin Norton, among many others.

Formalism with an edge, “The River of Orion” flows along a stream that is alternately staccato and smooth. Much of this quick-change improvisation is courtesy of Thomas, whose interpolations range from portamento dynamic theme expansions to spiccato leaps and scratches plus presto string-stopping. Interlocking with his dynamic range, the other two are equally eclectic in their playing. The guitarist, for instance, moves from straight-ahead guitar fills to slack-key-like tonalities to slurred fingering to steady strumming. Meantime the bassist displays sul tasto and col legno runs, double-stopping, walking plus string – and wood – slapping.

Although the main theme contains as almost Bossa Nova-like lilt, other sections move into country string band territory with the chirps and harmonies resembling those of mandolins, hammered dulcimers and irregularly-tuned fiddles. Flying spiccato from Thomas meets up with snapping strings and flat-picking from Emery, while Lindberg’s double bass belly thumps and below-the-bridge stops keep things together.

If string glissandi move into an area so romantic it could come from a Roma violinist roaming through a Budapest coffee house, then the chromatic rasgueado from the guitarist is firmly in string-fanning Spanish territory. At points timbres that could arise from a sitar, an erhu or even a lute are suggested if not exactly heard. Eventually though, each man’s interludes are superseded by the climax, which is both fanciful and veloce. As attractive violin tone brushes up against walking bass lines and rhythmic flat picking, the previous theme and variations are resolved in a multi-string cluster. Coda is a spectacular splattering glissandi from Thomas.

The non-Western stringed instruments referred to on “The River of Orion” are superseded by a powerful rhythmic thrust on “Journey Platz” so that horn and percussion tones appear to intrude. Lindberg, who has expressed open admiration for pioneering bassist Pops Foster, balances the five-part composition on his command of string slaps and col legno buzzes.

As the piece evolves Emery contributes tight, snapping licks and slurred note-picking, while Thomas moves from strident jumps to super-fleet glissandi and high-pitched portamento. By the finale the three have worked up to a 21st Century take on the Hot Club de France. Nonetheless, the piece announces its modernity in its ultimate few minutes as Emery’s echoing rhythm guitar licks and Thomas’ sputtering sul ponticello runs pull back for Lindberg’s sul tasto buzzing, which sounds as if the bow is cutting through not only the strings, but the bull fiddle body as well.

With music like this, the STNY proves that, no matter how you define it, neither age nor beauty has to take second place when the band creates.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: The River of Orion: 1. Aquarian Waters (Part One) 2. Aquarian Waters (Part Two) 3. E. Eridani 4. The Trapezium 5. The River of Orion (Theme) 6. Alnitak 7. Stellar Coronae 8. The Eridanus Supervoid 9. East of Mintaka 10. Journey Plantz Part One 11. Journey Plantz Part Two 12. Journey Plantz Part Three 13. Journey Plantz Part Four 14. Journey Plantz Part Five

Personnel: James Emery (guitar); Rob Thomas (violin) and John Lindberg (bass)