Talking Jazz

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The Independent Culture

Unlike the novel, the death of which has been announced with great regularity almost since the days of Caxton, the longevity of another art form whose foundations were laid some time ago, the piano trio, has never been questioned; or at least not with the same ferocity. Brad Mehldau has just produced another album with an acoustic set-up of piano, double bass and drums that a musician of the 1930s would recognise. Not that he or she would necessarily recognise the way in which the leader treats old numbers such as "Anything Goes", after which the new disc is named: tall, thin Brad, as laconic off stage as he is at the keyboard, takes the tunes apart, lines up all the bits, and then puts them back together, stripping down a Rolls-Royce and reassembling it as a Sinclair C5, albeit a particularly beautiful one.

Still, he is doing something new. But why in the acoustic trio? The answer is probably that he recognises that the piano trio is, like the string quartet, one of the great vehicles of musical expression, and for a rhythm-section player possibly the most satisfying of combinations. In the best trios there is a telepathy that allows, say, the drummer and bassist to finish one 12-bar blues on the second or third beat of the first bar of the next 12, while the pianist solos on top. In a quartet, such latitude carries with it a danger of that pair going in one direction, the pianist another, and the horn yet another. Fine in free form, of course, but not in something more structured.

This telepathy can be found in a duo; but in jazz two isn't company, it's damned hard work. Three is just enough to divide the burdens of melody, harmony and rhythm, while allowing plenty of personal expression. The pianist's co-equals need never feel forgotten. Even in a trio as straightforward as Oscar Peterson's, the leader may sound as if he's taking the glory with his torrent of immaculate phrases, but Ed Thigpen's fills and ride cymbal provide the riverbanks and Ray Brown's bass the riverbed. No other combo could make"I love Paris" so hard a gem, and Peterson couldn't do it alone.

A stage on from that, Eddie Gomez's placing of bass notes against the beat gave an edge to Bill Evans's almost too-romantic piano, while today Kenny Barron, Ron Carter and Billy Cobham bring a fresh intelligence and coolness to an older style of trio.

If further evidence is required, the success of EST shows that, Roller or C5, this is one form of transport that the discerning pianist, bassist or drummer will continue to take. Too bad that there isn't room for the saxophonist thumbing a lift at the side of the road.