March 19, 2011
Sten Sandell Trio
Face of Tokyo
PNL Records PNL004
Putting new spins on the delicate art of the Jazz piano trio are these two ensembles which produce notable work with their approaches the situation. Instructively enough each trio operates with the similar variables: a dominant drum stylist is linked with a solidly inventive double bass player plus an exploratory piano soloist who is comfortable playing both inside and outside.
On Face of Tokyo, the veteran player is Swedish pianist Sten Sandell, who has been that country’s paramount experimental keyboardist since the 1980s, most prominently in bands with drummer Raymond Strid and saxophonist Mats Gustafsson. His cohorts are almost a generation younger. Bassist Johan Berthling, a fellow Swede, has partnered figures as diverse as Free Jazz saxophonist Fredrik Ljungkvist and microtonal guitarist Oren Ambarchi. Norwegian percussionist Paal Nilssen-Love is one of the busiest drummers in the world, in ensembles ranging from Atomic to Peter Brötzmann’s Tentet. The ratio is reversed on LAIV. Here drummer Han Bennink, from the Netherlands is the old hand, having worked with most important figure in Free Jazz since the mid-1960s, including Brötzmann and is best-known for his long-time membership in the ICP Orchestra. Another Amsterdam-based ICP member – though a bit younger than the drummer – is bassist Ernst Glerum, who has also partnered Bennink in many combos. The youngest member here is Bologna-based pianist Fabrizio Puglisi, member of the Bassesfere Collective, who has worked with everyone from ICP cellist Tristan Honsinger to Italian drummer Zeno De Rossi’s different bands.
A regularly constituted group, this Italian-Dutch trio’s session, recorded live at a festival in Rome, finds the three moving among instant compositions and Jazz standards by pianists: Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington and Jimmy Rowles. Besides the fact that the other two appear able to keep the usually overbearing and sometimes disruptive drummer under control, as notable is how then three make the thematic material – even Rowles’ ballad “The Peacocks” – not jarring when played alongside pure improvisations. In fact during “The Peacocks”, Bennink’s accompaniment could be favorably compared to Paul Motion’s with Bill Evans. Rowles’ particular intermezzo here though is angled around intervallic layering with each parallel part exposed, including fortissimo bass-string plucks
This seems to be a carryover from Ellington’s “African Flower” which precedes that tune, where Glerum’s ringing andante bass solo not only promulgates the theme, but following an episode of stop-start angled reverberations, also recaps it. Meanwhile the pianist moves from high frequency note-flurries to Monk-like key clips and Ahmad Jamal-styled pacing, while the drummer exposes ratamacues and cymbal rebounds. Monk’s influence is noticeable not only in the trio versions of that pianist’s tunes, but also in the related improvisations. While these inventions are by definition more abstract, encompassing tick-tock backbeats from Bennink, spiccato bowing from Glerum and Puglisi’s mandolin-like arpeggios from plucked internal piano strings, all are kinetic and percussive.
Because of this orientation, even “Epistrophy” gets a new lease on life with Puglisi’s rubato and literally off-beat timed cadences gradually pulling back to reveal the theme, that is then delineated by Bennink’s press rolls and Glerum’s stentorian plucks. Backed by cascading runs and sharp clipped notes from the pianist plus drags and ruffs from the drummer, the bassist carries the melody for a while until Puglisi takes it back with cross-handed, pumping theme variations.
On the other CD, in contrast, no familiar themes are present on which the Scandinavian trio can work variations. Instead on this live Tokyo date the 10-year-old combo concentrates on two extended improvisations. Somehow the three players manage to perform both agitato and subtle in equal measures, with Nilssen-Love scattering his contributions among cymbals, unattached bells, drum tops and wood blocks and Berthling often sticking to portamento pulsing as well as strident string clumps. It may be the power of geographical suggestion likewise, but there are times throughout when thick stuck timbres from the bassist resemble those of a lute-like shamisen, or when Sandell’s rapid pitch-sliding intonation takes on koto-like qualities.
Putting aside quasi-Oriental inflections to ones from absolute music, at one point Sandell turns from dynamic glissandi and patterning to paralleling stopped piano strings with vocalized growls; the better to expose flattened note partials. Meantime the drummer rotates a single drum stick on top of an unlathed cymbal for maximum friction while the bassist creates complementary sul ponticello shrieks. As aggressive in his playing as Bennink can be, in contrast here Nilssen-Love’s rhythmic movement is never loud enough to overpower the others’ work. Technically, in fact, Sandell’s percussive key slamming, inner string strumming and plucking are as fortissimo and staccato as anything the drummer produces. On the other hand it’s Berthling’s stops, stretches and scrubbed col legno runs which best express the thematic material. In both instances, the tracks come to a logical conclusion when the pianist’s pressurized polyphony smoothly harmonizes with the bassist’s swift walking.
These noteworthy examples of Jazz piano trio extensions should satisfy both the open-minded traditionalists and those seeking new sounds.
— Ken Waxman
Track Listing: Face: 1. Face Up 2. Face Down
Personnel: Face: Sten Sandell (piano); Johan Berthling (bass) and Paal Nilssen-Love (drums and percussion)
Track Listing: LAIV: 1. Impro 1 2. Epistrophy 3. Crepuscule with Nellie 4. Impro 2 4. Impro 3 5. African Flower 6. The Peacocks
Personnel: LAIV: Fabrizio Puglisi (piano); Ernst Glerum (bass) and Han Bennink (drums)