THE MAGIC OF THE JAZZ PIANO-BASS-DRUMS TRIO
Based on an interview with Eddie Gomez and Mark Kramer by Jerry Jerome, Rutgers School of Music
The jazz "piano" trio has been an important part of the jazz scene for more than half a century. Examples of prominent jazz trios, often named for the pianist in the trio, include the Kenny Barron Trio, Chick Corea Trio, Bill Evans Trio, Vince Guaraldi Trio, Ahmad Jamal Trio, Keith Jarrett Trio, Ramsey Lewis Trio, Marion McPartland Trio, Brad Mehldau trio, Oscar Peterson Trio, Pieces of A Dream, The Three Sounds, The McCoy Tyner Trio, and the trios featured on this website (the Eddie Gomez-Mark Kramer Trio, The Mark Kramer Trio, The Eddie Gomez Trio) and many, many others.
The trio setting provides an intimate setting in which musicians can be maximally free and creative. The trio, often unconstrained by complicated arrangements or complex orchestration, is relatively free to spontaneously produce arrangements, dazzling improvisations, and interesting textures and interactions.
This article focuses upon one element of trio playing - contrapuntal melodic interplay. In this regard, trios tend to take one of three main approaches:
- Melodically interactive
- Melodically non-interactive
- Somewhere in-between
Almost every trio uses some element of melodic interplay.
The earliest Bill Evans Trio, featuring bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian, is considered by many to be the prototypical "melodically interactive" piano trio. In this trio, the bass critically provided complex poly-rhythmic/ melodic counterpoint and also offered lead lines as raw material for the rest of the group. The pianist, Bill Evans, gave space to the complex contributions of Scott as well as drummer Paul Motian. Evans' capacity and intelligence was remarkable, given that he was simultaneously immersed in his groundbreaking experiments in voicings/harmony, phrasing, and creation of mood. Whenever he could, Evans incorporated melodic/rhythmic ideas initiated by the bassist or drummer into the flow of his improvisations. Interestingly, in this group, and others like it, 1/4 note swing (as occurs in walking bass along with a locked drum groove) occurs, but only as one of many potential textures in a performance. While trios of this type are capable of intensely hard driving swing, this - by choice - is not their default paradigm. In Evans' trios, "swing" (i.e., forward motion) tends to be understated or only implied, especially in certain compositions. This arguably is done deliberately so that the trio can "buy" the space which is necessary for intricate melodic and often polyrhythmic interactions.
Evans' pension for "space" has sometimes been criticized by some jazz fans, i.e., those who specify that all jazz groups must groove on quarter note swing bebop or neo-bebop to be classified as "jazz". Thus, melodically interactive trios, like those of Evans, are sometimes thought of as being incapable "swinging." However, on close examination of the body of work, it is evident that these trios are more than capable of an intense locked driving swing. However, they often prefer a kind of "bounce/ two feel" on medium tempo swing and waltzes in order to provide the space for interplay.
Examples of trios at at the other end of the spectrum - - mostly melodically non-interactive trios - - are those of Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal, Kenny Barron, McCoy Tyner and Vince Guaraldi and the majority of others. In these groups the pianist is front and center, and the bassists and drummers tend to play supportive, no less brilliant, traditional roles: "groove" (latin, or swing) tends to be the dominant paradigm. Contrapuntal work tends to occur, but "between the pianist's hands." These groups are usually highly cohesive, owing sometimes to elaborate arrangements and exciting often unison ostinato patterns. The bassists and drummers in many of these groups are indeed virtuoso players, but their roles in these trios are mainly to support the lead voice of the pianist. Rhythmic interplay is often complex in these trios; the sense of forward motion is clear and exciting. The pianists in these groups have often paid "dues", have been innovators, and each has a readily identifiable sound. Arguably, the sound of their trios are less dependent upon the melodic contributions their bassists or drummers, than is the case with melodically interactive trios.
The Keith Jarret and the recently acclaimed Brad Mehldau Trios are examples of "somewhere in-between" trios. These groups display incredible group cohesion, uncanny common purpose, and are masters at creating a joint mood. The bassists and drummers in these trios are indispensable to the overall sound. Though the pianists are front and center, they clearly relish and respect the sonic space of their co-members. These trios thus create seamless moods, a byproduct of superb ensemble playing. The primary difference between these trios and that of Evans' type, is that the bassist in these ensembles generally contributes texture and fragmented melodies; they rarely play fully formed melodies, except during their solos. It is unlikely that this is a limitation of the bassists or the drummers in many of these groups. Rather it appears to be a naturally agreed upon "somewhere-in-between" type of approach. The pianists carry most of the responsibility for melody and harmony in these groups; their improvisations tend to highly creative, often lengthy. The pianists are supported in each nuance by a superbly responsive accompaniment. The accompaniment tends to be just varied enough to feed new rhythmic and textural material, but never enough to detract or derail the primary voice of the pianist.
The Chic Corea trios are a special example of the somewhere-in-between-interactivity type jazz trio. The interactivity of these trios is based more in complex and exciting polyrhythm than polymelody. Corea is a masterful arranger/composer who tends to dictate melodically contrapuntal lines through his superb detailed writing for bass, piano, and drums.
All of the trios mentioned in this article are wonderful. However, there are vast differences in their approaches to trio jazz.
The Eddie Gomez-Mark Kramer Trio
The Eddie Gomez-Mark Kramer Trio builds on all of the primary elements of an interactive trio mentioned above, and also places a great premium producing a mood, feeling, and atmosphere. However, in this trio, the players are most often melodic co-contributors. Each member is responsible for improvising complex melodic ideas in real time. These ideas, coming from multiple fronts simultaneously, are integrated to produce an "as if written" interwoven sonic tapestry of fine detail.
The EG-MK Trio's soundsample of Yesterdays (J. Kern) from
"THE TRIO" sonically illustrates the above point
[choose real audio, MP3 (high cable/DSL/ISDN), windows media player; SHUT OFF sound in left hand frame if playing]
In a strict sense the drummer cannot produce melody. However, the drummer's patterns tend to interweave as if they were melodic. Thus there are at least two layers of improvised music in this type of trio: 1)an overall contour, and 2) sublayers which contain rich two or three part inventions (improvisations.) Thus, the music can be heard from several vantage points. Upon repeated listening, people become aware of a brilliant subtext: a music within a music.
We've chosen the Eddie Gomez-Mark Kramer Trio to provide master classes at the University. We continue to be astonished by this group's exponential evolution. It ranks at the top of its particular genre and we are pleased to know that a new record company, MYTHIC JAZZ, is devoted to this artform.
The jazz piano trio remains a potent force in jazz today. By no means has the potential of this combination been exhausted. Listeners who take the time to explore the music are sure to experience a new universe of riveting artistry and poetry.
...Dr. Jerry Jerome, Rutgers University