Satoko Fujii

Spring Storm
Libra Records 203-034

Sophie Agnel/John Edwards/Steve Noble

Météo

Clean Feed CF 272 CD

Craig Taborn Trio

Chants

ECM 2326

Probably the most respected of all Jazz configurations from all parts of the modern spectrum is the archetypal piano, bass and drum trio. Just because it’s the standard modus operandi for stylists ranging from Keith Jarrett and Oscar Peterson to Bill Evans and Ahmad Jamal doesn’t means that the end product has to be the same. Especially evident in this trio of disc involving American, French, British and Japanese players is that originality results when the expected hierarchy of the piano-and-rhythm-section is shattered. In each of these discs creation is among equal partners.

In conception the most conventional of the discs is pianist Craig Taborn’s Chants featuring solid bassist Thomas Morgan and imaginative drummer Gerald Cleaver. Together almost a decade, the balance of power ultimately rests between the pianist, who wrote all of the compositions, and the drummer who he has played with him for a quarter century. Singly and together Cleaver and Taborn have gigged with many outstanding Jazzers including saxophonists Roscoe Mitchell and Tim Berne and bassist William Parker. On the other hand, the bassist is much younger and is also a member of saxophonist David Binney’s band.

Cleaver’s sensitivity along with strength allows the three to move fluently between ballads and faster-paced fare. For instance it’s the drummer’s vigorous and perfectly timed claps and ruffs which convey the andante intermezzo of “All True” as much as the parallel melodic chiming from Taborn and Morgan. Quivering with nuanced keyboard decorations, the piece is saved from becoming too tame or sugary however by Cleaver’s feints and rebounds. In contrast it’s the unalloyed power of Cleaver’s bulldozing beats that communicate the kinetic dynamism of “Silver Days Or Love”. Added to this is pressurized friction created by Morgan’s walking and tremolo power of the pianist’s repetative phrasing.

Taken as whole, whether the compositions’ sweet spot is defined by Taborn’s triple-pulsing glissandi or Morgan’s introspective juddering, it’s always spacious enough to include each participant equally. Mercurial and matching, this canny admixture of tension and release was engendered by faultless planning. Its execution makes Chants sing.

Among the 23 ensembles ranging from duos to big bands helmed by pianist Satoko Fujii she’s usually had two piano trios, one in Japan, and the other in the United States., with the latter featuring Mark Dresser and Jim Black. Her new trio is Tokyo-based except that bassist Todd Nicholson, who in the past has played with Billy Bang and Steve Swell, is an expatriate American, while drummer Takashi Itani often plays Pop and Rock as well as improvised music.

Oddly enough, it’s the bass which intermittently echoes Oriental sounds as intervallic ululations take on timbres that could come from a shamisen or a biwa. Other than that, the Spring Storm reflected takes much more from the westerly winds of so-called classical music and Jazz as any Oriental sourced themes. “Fuki”, for example has a staccato melody reminiscent of “East Broadway Rundown” and if Fujii’s kinetic advances have an antecedent it’s Herbie Nichols. Nicholson, often a capella, settles and centres the performance at the top just as Itani’s continuous ruffs and bounces signal the ending. However the climatic interface is between the bassist’s steady plucking and Fujii’s bravado exposition that takes in high-classical romanticism and pinpointed stops from the inner strings.

This contrast between the detailed power and pressure Fujii brings to her keyboard strategies and the minimalist accompaniment of the percussionist’s cymbal pings is what makes the session so distinctive. Plus the continuous contrasts add to the fascination. Morose at the start and finish due to bell-tree shakes, trembling bass strings and strolling piano lines for instance, the mid-range melody of “Maebure” quivers with intensity in its centre. Whining sul ponticello lines from Nicholson and clatters from Itani are surmounted by circular cascades from the piano which dig deeply into soundboard innards plus staccato tones from either aside of the keyboard.

Stomping thickness with pedal power plus metronomic glissandi as part of Fujii’s improvisational strategy provides the energy that propels the six tracks here. Balanced so as not to neglect cerebral patterning, is part of this as well. Curiously, the single eponymously titled track on Météo works in similar fashion, but with both the unbridled force and the cerebral analysis intensified.

Recorded live at the Météo festival in France, the CD links Paris-based pianist Sophie Agnel with Londoners John Edwards and Steve Noble on bass and drums respectively. During melding sequences, Agnel, who has recorded with everyone from saxophonist Daunik Lazro to electronic manipulator Pascal Battus, moves in and out of the piano. Unlike Fujii’s tentative explorations, Agnel is all over the key frame, bridges and action with the strings not only stopped, plucked and excited for maximum pitch clattering, but prepared with attachments and small balls to source more tones.

Edwards, who often plays with saxophonists John Butcher and Evan Parker and Noble, who works with just about everyone in Europe, are no slouches in the extended technique department either. The bassist frequently bends strings for unusual cadences or vibrates horizontal sticks among them as Noble explores different parts of his kit, in standard configuration or with carefully separated rhythms

Of course all of this would mean little if the collective improvisation didn’t stretch into a visceral sense of excitement. Key jabs and ball resonations on Agnel’s part are matched by Noble creating squeaking friction by rubbing his cymbals and drum tops as Edwards pumps his strings. As double bass strings ring, the piano keys can bend or slide off any tone needed, building up to a crescendo of multiphonic clusters. Noble’s mini-symphony of banging cymbals and gongs marks the tension-releasing climax, giving both Edwards, vibrating his strings from scroll to spike and Agnel impetus to reveal more thematic material. Dynamically as each timbre appears to find an equivalent match in the other players’ work, the pianist throws in the rare Bebop reference as the piece slowly moves to a conclusion. Edwards’ string scrubs, door-stopper resonations from Noble and Agnel’s widely spaced key clips introduce a conclusive gentleness which signals the finale.

The instrumentation on these CDs may be identical. But with conceptions and performances widely varied, the only other similarity they share is that of brilliant vibrancy.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Chants: 1. Saints 2. Beat The Ground 3. In Chant 4. Hot Blood 5. All True 6. Night/Future Perfect 7. Cracking Hearts 8. Silver Ghosts 9. Silver Days Or Love 10. Speak The Name

Personnel: Chants: Craig Taborn (piano); Thomas Morgan (bass) and Gerald Cleaver (drums)

Track Listing: Spring: 1. Spring Storm 2. Convection 3. Fuki 4.Whirlwind 5. Maebure 6. Tremble.

Personnel: Spring: Satoko Fujii (piano); Todd Nicholson (bass) and Takashi Itani (drums)

Track Listing: Météo: 1. Météo

Personnel: Météo: Sophie Agnel (piano); John Edwards (bass) and Steve Noble (drums)