Michael Bisio / David Haney / Jimmy Bennington

May 12, 2010

Another Friend: The Music of Herbie Nichols

That Swan! Records 1006


Saints and Sinners

El Gallo Rojo 314-31

Trio This


GM Recordings GM3050CD

Re-imagining the scope of one of the hoariest of jazz’s traditional formations – the piano trio – demands foresight, guts and technical prestidigitation. This is especially true if the pianist, bassist and drummer involved are going to deal mostly with the standard repertoire.

Two of the three sessions here manage to forge an individualistic path for a combo whose make-up has spurred improvisers as different as Thelonious Monk Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett and Oscar Peterson – the Italian Rope formation and the trio led by drummer Jimmy Bennington. The third – Trio This – has personality, but an overall listlessness in its performance relegates it here to a lesser rank.

Interestingly enough each group depends on the input of a strong drummer. Chicago-based Bennington, for instance has worked with everyone from veterans saxophonist Rich Corpolongo and vibraphonist Jim Cooper to younger explorers such as trombonist Jeb Bishop and bassist Benjamin Duboc. His associates are just as impressive. New York bassist Michael Bisio is the go-to guy for everyone from multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee to vibist/pianist Karl Berger. Considering that Another Friend is made up of the compositions of idiosyncratic pianist Herbie Nichols, filling the piano chair is crucial. Portland, Oregon-based David Haney is a teacher and composer who often works with trombonist with Julian Priester and bassist Buell Neidlinger

Rope’s pianist Fabrizio Puglisi also teaches in Bologna. Member of the local Bassesfere Collective, he has played with Dutch reedist Ab Baars and been a member of the Italian Instabile Orchestra. Drummer Zeno De Rossi, who also runs the El Gallo Rojo label, is a member of more than a dozen bands ranging from straight-ahead jazz to Klezmer ensembles and also backs rock singers. Bassist Stefano Senni has worked with everyone from Bop clarinetist Tony Scott to young reedist Chris Speed. Rope’s Saints and Sinners is a triumph for a trio faced with the most difficult task here: putting a new spin on ultra-familiar compositions from the likes of Duke Ellington, Monk, John Lewis and even W.C. Handy.

Trio This’ standards include tunes by Wayne Shorter, Henry Mancini and Les McCann. Inventive, Boston-based drummer George Schuller, who wrote two pieces here, has played with stylists as different as saxophonist Joe Lovano and pianist Burton Greene. Bassist Matt Pavloka has worked with saxophonist Lee Konitz and James Spaulding. Melbourne-born, Brooklyn-based pianist Barney McAll – who composed four of the tunes here and arranged one other – not only gigs with saxophonists Gary Bartz and the JBs, but has also scored award-winning films.

Perhaps that’s why this CD doesn’t quite succeed in transcending its history: McAll has spent so much time involved in background work that it appears he’s forgotten how to be in the foreground. This is especially noticeable on McCann’s “Get that Soul”. A by-rote version of funk, its polite and simple syncopation makes it a foot-tapper, but little else. Pavolka thumps, Schuller clanks and strokes and McAll clinks the keys – then there’s an expected trading of fours.

The same situation arises in McAll originals such as “Where It Stops, Nobody Knows”. Although more processional than some of his other tunes that appear to move with tinkling bounces, despite the pianist’s strummed harmonies and steady chording, it seems as there’s never a note out of place – or any sense of abandon to the improvisations.

More notable are Schuller’s creations, although a tune such as “Nice Exit” finds McAll’s Dave Brubeck-style comping eschewing anything discordant or staccato. Luckily once the bassist’s licks and the drummer’s chinging cymbal lock into place there’s more momentum. Even here though, an idea of how the piece is going to evolve and conclude is evident before the finale.

On the other hand, despite its retro title, “Lava Lamp” may be the only antidote to the tracks that produce more heat than light. On top of chiming bass strings and rim shots from the drummer, the pianist’s chromatic exposition encompasses feather-light sparkling licks and single note emphasis, culminating in low-frequency resounds from the piano’s innards plus patterning and patting drum beats.

As different from This as Bologna is from Boston or Brooklyn, Saints and Sinners explodes with circumstellar energy as early as its first track, Handy’s “St. Louis Blues”, which has probably been covered more times than all versions of Herbie Nichols’ tunes combined. De Rossi’s drag, slap and pseudo-ricky-tick drumming and Senni’s walking bass are the perfect accompaniment to Puglisi’s angled, double-timed and syncopated melody variant. Soon his octave jumps and cascading lines make the piece even blusier without resorting to McCann-like faux funk.

A similar deconstruction occurs on Monk’s “San Francisco Holiday” which weaves bicycle horns beeps, thick bass-string reverb, De Rossi’s rim shots and the pianist pushing and stopping internal string friction into the melody. These zither-like buzzing and bowing strokes from Puglisi meet up with De Rossi’s cowbell clanks plus drum strokes and ruffs, leaving to a skewed exposition that is both fragmented and distinctive.

De Rossi’s extended drum rolls and Puglisi’s stride pacing manage to give Bill Frisell’s atmospheric “Monica Jane” a moodier reading, with guitar-like licks from the exposed strings creating a late-night bluesy mood. Eventually the piece accelerates to backbeat raps from the drummer and exaggerated glissandi from the pianist.

On the downside, the band’s Ellington medley seems pretty standard, but the three handle originals with verve. Puglisi’s “Triogramma” for instance, is rather like a lyrical capriccio toughened with repeated chording. As slippery and sliding high-frequency runs and portamento dynamics from the pianist toughen and intensify the narrative, the drummer’s crackling cymbals add to the fireworks, as the composer slithers from the bottom of the scale upwards before recapping the head.

De Rossi’s “Baron Samedi” too is a memorable exercise in stop-time swing built on clattering ratchets from the composer and waterfalls of descending notes from the pianist. As Puglisi’s circular arpeggios turn to low-frequency, Latinesque flashes, the drummer continues to build on the tensile framing.

Pianist Herbie Nichols (1919-1963) created sophisticated and unexpected themes that were poorly received during his short lifetime. Luckily Bennington – like erstwhile Haney employer Neidlinger – is someone interested in exploring Nichols legacy. Of the six tunes given a more expansive reading than Nichols’ own recordings allowed – only one was recorded by the composer himself.

That one, “House Party Starting” is basically recomposed with the three metaphorically backing into the as-yet-commenced fête. As the drummer’s cymbal resonation and Bisio’s ponticello slices set the scene, Haney’s largo narrative is more crepuscule than commanding. Eventually the theme kicks in, but the pianist takes it andante as Bennington’s circular brush movements and the bassist’s reverberating stops cooperate. Throughout, the pianist moves from harsh-voiced note clusters to a gentling swing to a finale that is almost thematically legit.

Bennington, who arranged all the tunes, also succeeds in furrowing new textures to add to Nichols’ highly original work – and Bisio and Haney contribute as well. On “Old 52nd St. Rag” for instance, Haney is appropriately hesitant and raggy in his interpretation, but there’s an undertow of barely held-back power underneath his notes. As the drummer pats his cymbals and the bassist double stops, Haney turns to low-frequency clipping and strumming, with the narrative expressed in broken chords aided by Bisio’s sympathetic counter-line and Bennington’s press rolls and cymbal socks.

Assertive friction characterizes “Twelve Bars”, with Bisio’s bass stopping, walking and slapping; Bennington’s drums and cymbals stroking, scraping and clattering plus Haney’s key clipping or portamento interpretation evolving at a different tempo than the others. A sprinkling of low-key pulses characterize Haney’s conclusion following thick pumps from the bassist and a mournful arco sweep.

In the right hands, traditional piano-trio music can be given new life. Reinterpretation was tried on each of these CDS, with two out of the three impressively succeeding.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Saints: 1. St Louis Blues 2. 2. San Francisco Holiday 3. Django 4. Medley: Kinda Dukish/Rockin’ In Rhythm 5. Baron Samedi 6. Mamacita 7. Monica Jane 8. Triogramma

Personnel: Saints: Fabrizio Puglisi (piano); Stefano Senni (bass) and Zeno De Rossi (drums)

Track Listing: That: 1. Pug Nose 2. Where It Stops, Nobody Knows 3. Flashback4. Langham 5. Lava Lamp 6. Duke 7. Nice Exit 8. Dreamsville 9. Get That Soul 10. Ten Days of Silence

Personnel: That: Barney McAll (piano); Matt Pavolka (bass) and George Schuller (drums and bells)

Track Listing: Another: 1. Old 52nd St. Rag 2. Another Friend 3. Ina 4. Prancin’ Pretty Woman 5. Twelve Bars 6. House Party Starting.

Personnel: Another: David Haney (piano); Michael Bisio (bass) and Jimmy Bennington (drums)