No Piano, Please!

by Will Layman

19 October 2016

Four recent releases demonstrate the stylistic range and power of jazz that isn't hemmed in by chords.
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Stephan Crump

Rhombal

(Papillion Sounds)
US: 13 Sep 2016
UK: 13 Sep 2016

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Adam O'Farrill

Stranger Days

(Sunnyside)
US: 29 Apr 2016
UK: 29 Apr 2016

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DE3 (Duane Eubanks, Eric McPherson, Dezron Douglas)

Live at Maxwells

(Sunnyside)
US: 13 May 2016
UK: 13 May 2016

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Honey Ear Trio (Jeff Lederer, Rene Hart, Allison Miller)

Swivel

(Little (i))
US: 21 Oct 2016
UK: 21 Oct 2016

It’s still relatively rare for a jazz group to eschew a chording instrument. A piano or guitar, which can play complete harmonies by itself, gives the band and the listener a comfortable road map for where the music is going from moment to moment. The lush chords of modern jazz are often the sweetener in a jazz group, the richs backdrop over which the soloist spins an improvised adventure.

But those chords can also be a net beneath the trapeze artist, if you will: comforting but unnecessary and maybe a barrier to the real adventure.

Four recent or upcoming recordings make the case that taking the net away makes the music more astonishing and allows the listener to hear some of the beautiful counterpoint that takes place between non-chording instruments as they improvise. Two are simple trios for a horn, an acoustic bass, and drums, and two add another horn to the front line, creating even more counterpoint and conversation. Each one puts the emphasis on the incredible individual voices of the musicians and the careful compositions that generate harmonic interest without a piano or guitar gumming up the works.

Stephan Crump, Rhombal

Stephan Crump is the bass player in Vijay Iyer’s astonishing trio. His talent is creating strong bass parts that are of independent interest. Here, he has assembled a quartet across several generations. Ellery Eskelin is a tenor saxophonist in his mid-50s who has played with controlled freedom across four decades. Associated with the downtown scene in New York and fascinated by classic saxophone sounds, Eskelin plays with a gravity that settles into the moment, and he sounds gorgeous here, paired with the young trumpeter Adam O’farrell on the front line. O’Farrill also plays continually “in character”—never flashy for the sake of flashy—sounding like he is telling a story.

The “story” of Rhombal is never explicit, of course, but the music was inspired by Crump’s late brother, and each track moves forward with personality and quirk, like a real person. “Tschi” has a loping bass line that hops forward, then pulls back, with a horn melody that matches the bass, lunching and doubling back, funky but a little bit shy. Movement is equally essential to “Skippaningam”, which has super-syncopated bop melody that is fleet and fluid, moving with swift confidence. Once the head is complete, you absolutely expect the tune to move into a string of solos over a classic “walking” bass line, but instead Eskelin and O’Farrill improvise together in a tentative thoughtfulness, as if suddenly caught by doubts, while the rhythm section keeps teasing but avoiding the straight swing that was initially suggested.

In each song, this quartet plays subtly with time. Crump chose his drummer wisely, as there’s no one in the music today who is more daring and intricate than Tyshawn Sorey. Every measure he plays across his cymbals and drums is like its own composition. “Esquire Dream” calls for a tight funk played with brushes in an odd time signature, but that feels organic. Sorey locks in with Crump’s acoustic funk and plays with little flash but steady invention. He has the band strutting down a street in New York, perhaps, but doing it on a stuttering zig-zag.

Again, there are no conventional “jazz solos” and so you find yourself listening to the groove as if it were Coltrane. “Birdwhistle” is another irresistible example of groove. The horns “chirp” in a careful counterpoint while Sorey and Crump establish a lightly backbeated funk—one that’s so good that you can’t get it out of your head even during the first part of O’Farrill’s solo, featuring only Crump’s accompaniment. Eskelin gets a more aggressive version of the rhythm section on his solo, taking the tune beyond the polite and allowing everyone to explode with energy.

Nothing on “Rhombal” better demonstrates the possibilities of a chord-less band that “How Close Are You”, a ballad that gives every character on the stage a different role and a choreography that weaves the lines into a complete whole. O’Farrill plays the melody while Eskelin winds about in the middle register creating harmonic counterpoint. Crump does most of the work setting up a groove with low tones, repeated high tones, and simple movements, yet he also takes the first, moving solo. Sorey creates atmosphere mostly with cymbals and snare, shimmering and swaying, casting a gorgeous shadow over every note from the horns. Listening to this tune or the elegiac “Pulling Pillars” is like getting to know a new person, hearing their story over a long meal and conversation.

Adding piano or guitar to any of there performances would have been not merely superfluous but also sabotage, like pouring a thick cream sauce on top of delicately flavored meal. What’s delicious is being able to discern the way each flavor here creates the whole.

Adam O’Farrill, Stranger Days

Crump’s young trumpet player released his own quartet session a few months ago. O’Farrill is the son of Latin jazz master Arturo O’Farrill and a rising star on his instrument in his very early 20s. Stranger Days is nevertheless a mature work, created with other young players (including O’Farrill’s brother, Zack, on drums).

The compositions and arrangements, all by the leader or bassist Walter Stinson, are as complex as novels or epic films. “The Stranger”, based on the Camus tale of indifferent murder, shifts and creates drama for ten minutes, starting with a trumpet cadenza by the leader that hints at an Ellington melody only to find its own way as Stinson and eventually tenor saxophonist Chad Lefkowitz-Brown join in. Zack O’Farrill plays in a sharp, martial pattern that can easily shift swing when he lets it. The mood takes on plenty of colors, but you can essentially feel Meursault in his cell, wrestling with his sense of self.

“Alligator Got the Blues” sounds like it should rock or, perhaps, joke, but it’s unironic, with a stately sense of sadness in the two-horns-in-harmony beauty of the opening section and then a fast groove that builds momentum and urgency under the tenor solo. “The Cows and Their Farmer Wait” also promises a kind of whimsy, and it delivers with a hopping, uptempo oom-pah section that finds the horns doubling the hi-hat pattern and putting a skip of joy in your ear.

Every composition here, regardless of style, makes the most of this quartet format, with every instrument playing a distinct role that completes the song. “The Courtroom” has trumpet and saxophone alternating phrases in what appears to be a through-written three minutes, as if they were the two lawyers arguing a motion. Stinson interjects short bits of harmonic guidance (the judge?), with Zack’s rat-a-tat drums sounding the typing of a court reporter. Aside from the metaphor, however, the instruments—no piano, please—want for nothing, melodically, harmonically, or rhythmically.

Before leaving Stranger Days, it seems necessary to add that O’Farrill is not a show-off here, which suggests that he’s one of the best young trumpet players in New York, on par with other growing giants such as Ambrose Akinmusere. “Lower Brooklyn Botanical Union” starts with a bobbing, weaving trumpet cadenza, and O’Farrill also takes the first solo: quick, witty, inventive, and busting with tonal flavor. Lefkowitz-Brown is a strong player too and full of fast flurries of notes that bop and burr, but the leader is the one whose statements seem to be a telling a story rather than just whiz-banging your ears. He is a rising star as a player and composer.

DE3, Live at Maxwell’s

Strong trumpet work is plainly necessary on this beautifully recorded trio outing for horn, bass, and drums. Though saxophone trios are utterly common today, this format is nearly nonexistent. Why? Trumpets are known for dominating quartets, quintets, big bands. Are they not big enough to carry the weight on a smaller band with no piano?

Duane Eubanks, who seems more and more active on the scene recently, holds our ear on this date with trumpet subtlety rather than flash. His tone tends to be puckish and coy rather than infused with bravado. “A Slight Taste” is a great example. Young phenom Dezron Douglas plays what sounds like a melody on bass, wound around a snapping brushes pattern from Eric McPherson, and then Eubanks enters with the interlocking line. It’s a swirling pattern with three equal, balanced parts. Once the improvising starts, Eubanks is patient and wise, leaving room in between the phrases of his solo to let the rhythm section shine through.

“Saturday Moanin’” is slow and mournful, starting with Eubanks playing stately blues phrases over a simple bass line built on basic, three-note arpeggios. He unspools a languorous four minutes of logical soloing without ever testing the listener’s patience. A similar tactic pays of on “Little Rock”, with Eubanks playing with a mute, just sketching ideas behind Douglas’s gorgeous minor bass line and an exploratory accompaniment on drums that shows McPherson to be a master of cymbal work.

Each of these tunes is like bonsai tree: a miniature, carefully groomed, artfully balanced, and complete unto itself. It takes some care in listening, but all the pieces are in place. Douglas has such elasticity that he seems like a piano and saxophone at the same time, covering all sorts of basses, harmonically, texturally, and melodically. McPherson plays like a focused version of Elvin Jones, Coltrane’s drummer—just a bit “messy” in the sense that he fills up lots of space. Then Eubanks just drives his tart sound right down the middle.

Honey Ear Trio, Swivel

The Honey Ear Trio, a collective featuring drummer Allison Miller, saxophonist Jeff Lederer, and Rene Hart on bass and electronics, takes a very different—much more maximal—approach to the piano-less trio challenge. Each of these musicians is capable of filling up an arena on their own, and even when they play something quiet there is a busy, rich, elaborated quality to the conversation in the band.

The opener, “Arby”, simply rocks. Miller lays in a big, messy backbeat and slays her cymbals, plays her fills, pounds with precision. Lederer puts a fat melody over an electronic buzz form Hart. Woooo! Until suddenly the band cuts it back to a tight, quiet groove. Then it all switches back again, only to give way to a mad Miller drum solo that is punctuated by blasts of horn. Honey Ear has your attention for every second of this recording. Omitting a guitar or piano does nothing to lessen the appeal.

The band’s take on Thelonious Monk is the most refreshing Monk interpretation in years. “Evidence” starts with Miller developing a syncopated funk pattern using kick drum and the rim of her snare, over which bass and soprano sax play the tune we all love. The band then shifts to a rock backbeat for a variation that winds up back at the beginning. The arrangement is sneaky and seductive and, in its eccentric, dancing way, very very Monk. Equally fun and somewhat odd is “Squeaky Toy”, which uses the sound of a pet’s toy to fuel the groove and to set up a soprano saxophone line that imitates that annoying, insistent high-end honk. Again, the band rock this one, using an electronic line in place of bass that moves in parallel with Miller’s bashing attack while Lederer wails on the straight horn.

Do you want things to just swing? Then “Stanley’s Package” has you covered. The melody is passed around in different ways. A stop time rising arpeggio punctuates things, but a straight walking groove sits beautifully under a more conventional bop melody. Hart and Miller double certain licks in the composition in deft moments of emphasis, but the Lederer solo is a killer train heading down the tracks, with Miller dropping bombs and exploding in commentary like Tony Williams.

Honey Ear also brings in a guest on three tunes to turn this date into another two-horn + bass + drums unit. Kirk Knufke, the cornet specialist of the moment, is hardly necessary for this band, but he can transform the sound in important ways. On “Speak Eddie” he provides harmonies on the initial stabs and a classic brass blend on the melody so that, when Miller takes off swinging, Honey Ear can pass for a classic “Blue Note”-style band of the ‘50s or ‘60s. His solo has a different personality than Lederer’s, and suddenly the band is that much broader.

On “Lullaby”, the mournful melody, played over a droning electronic shimmer, reminds us that much more of Miles Davis’s “In a Silent Way” because of the brass tone, and strangely the song also contains a tiny hint of that open, sunny Chuck Mangione sound from the ‘70s (in a good way!). “New Work” also benefits from the cornet, creating a wryly harmonized ensemble sound that suggests a reggae horn section. The tune moves into a snarling. heavy, slow drag, and each horn solos over those respective sections, with the two voices mingling and overlaping between solos, expressing some of the messy aesthetic that piano-less groups have often represented.

This Is Where It’s At

What the Honey Ear Trio pulls off on Swivel is exemplary of all four of these bands, and exemplary of something that is happening across today’s creative music. The key trend that is audible on all four records is not a new infusion of pop into improvised music (or vice versa, depending on which Kamasi and Glasper Are Making Jazz Cool Again! article you read) but a glorious freedom to range across styles. These bands play some pop for sure: not just Honey Ear’s roaring rock moments but also Eubanks’ “Red Clay”-funky “Ebony Slick”, Crump’s slow-and-slinky “Grovi” that is darkly sexy but in an odd meter, and Adam O’Farrill’s dancing waltz “A&R Italian Eatery”

Just as often, however, these records unleash the musicians to play anything and everything that serves the stories that want to be told. There’s some “free” or atonal playing. There’s bop across chord changes and post-bop that swings like mad beyond a set of changes. There’s reggae and balladry, blues and abstraction. And it’s all done without a piano or guitar—and maybe it’s done more easily and naturally that way because those are instruments most likely to hew a band to one genre or another. As they say: no strings attached.


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