It takes quite a bit of chutzpah for a jazz pianist to release a trio album. In the history of jazz, most legendary albums feature four or more musicians. Exceptions to this rule exist, of course (see works by Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson, Keith Jarrett and, more recently, Brad Mehldau for examples), but, in general, the most immediate and exciting jazz albums were recorded by bands composed of more than just a traditional rhythm section.
A number of factors explain this trend. With fewer instruments, more space exists for each musician to fill, and the musicians usually end up filling this space with more notes rather than more ideas. With fewer instruments, it also becomes harder to sustain the variations in timbre, tension and harmony that keep an album interesting for 40-plus minutes—and jazz is all about these variations.
Despite such daunting challenges, the trio album is seen as mandatory by many jazz pianists due to financial and logistical reasons rather than creative. Quite simply, two musicians come cheaper than three or more, and touring is much more feasible and lucrative. With fewer instruments comes less arranging. Most importantly, the trio album serves as a recorded audition for the young jazz pianist, enabling other musicians (who are hiring) to hear him or her leading a band.
Unfortunately, instead of being enamored by its creativity, jazz pianist Adam Birnbaum’s new trio effort, Travels, contains many exciting moments, but, on the whole, at nearly 70 minutes in length, it feels bloated and self-indulgent. In short, it sounds like a recorded audition.
Highlights: On album opener, “Jackhammer”, Birnbaum uses a repeating dissonant piano riff, which is pure hip-hop sampling fodder, to convey the frenetic energy of New York City. The song’s piano solos, which billow playfully in and out of consonance, evoke Bill Evans’ work on the legendary Sunday at the Village Vanguard recordings.
“Kat’s Dance”, too, anchors itself with a repeating, off-kilter piano riff that slides excitedly up a half-step before easing back down. In Herbie Nichols fashion, the song’s melody merges with the harmony so naturally that it’s hard to discern one from the other, giving the music a pastoral quality reminiscent of a new-wave movie soundtrack.
Saxophonist Sharel Cassity is a welcome addition on “Song of Those Who Seek” and “Camden.” On these tracks, Birnbaum shines. No longer burdened by the need to display his virtuosity (which is clearly evident throughout), his playing here seems more self-assured. His solos treat the silence between notes like it’s as important as the notes themselves.
Unfortunately, most of Birnbaum’s solos on the album do not follow this pattern of less is more. “Hor’ Ich das Liedchen Klingen”, which is based on music by Robert Schumann, is a perfect example. The song begins with a haunting piano passage. However, Birnbaum’s extended improvisation interrupts and seems to forego any blues or call-and-response aesthetic. Instead, it settles in for nearly five minutes of scales and keyboard wanderings. Neither bassist Joe Sanders nor drummer Rodney Green gets a solo or a moment to experiment. Like much of the album, they simply fill what empty space Birnbaum may inadvertently leave open.
In his work with Greg Osby, Birnbaum proved himself to be a stellar pianist, not just a able sideman. And perhaps with a few more years and a few more albums under his belt, Birnbaum will be ready to record a truly great trio album. But, for now, we are left with Travels, which is little more than an exercise in virtuosity and a means to more gigs.
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