[24 October 2006]
The legendary short-lived pianist Clarence Profit began something in the late 1930s with eventually Jimmy Shirley, a great guitarist who didn’t get his due, and a good bassist: the piano-guitar-bass trio. Profit presumably wanted to get things going musically, especially harmonically, but little of any of that got onto his one CD’s worth of recordings. His only unusual performance lay in major company vaults for twenty years, presumably not issued when new because of the harmonic territory entered at the end of a high-speed performance of an early Ellington band number. Music could be too strange for majors and for the wider public considered in programming jazz issues.
The format was useful in clubs where drums and horns weren’t allowed, and—as is liable to be forgotten—its beginnings in the late 1930s coincided with the arrival of and manufacturer-driven fad for the electric guitar. Soon there was the King Cole Trio, which lasted through the early fame of its pianist’s singing, and as an even greater jazz pianist Art Tatum joined forces with Slam Stewart and Tiny Grimes, in a format with popular attractions. In a recent BBC Radio 3 feature on Cole, Brian Priestley attributed the trio format to him, and even the block chords style taken up by George Shearing—who himself knows better and refers to its real founder, Milt Buckner. The Shearing group with vibes of course built on the piano-guitar format.
Ray Charles was an exponent not on the same pianistic or improvising level, no doubt with some inspiration from blues piano-guitar duets. Then there was Oscar Peterson, whose use of the format resulted from an idiot asking, when he and Ray Brown arrived at a gig, where the rest of the band was. So they brought in first Barney Kessel, whom I heard much later in an excellent version of the format with the Canadian pianist Oliver Jones, a neo-Petersonian whose name I’ve not heard in years, and the Scottish bassist Ronnie Rae: ad hoc at a festival and all together. Dick Hyman with Howard Alden on guitar and the bassist Michael Moore were also stunning. And as a regular trio, there had been Herb Ellis and Brown with Monty Alexander: Triple Treat. Brown later operated in the format with Benny Green, one of his pianists, and Russell Malone, one of the guitarists. New York Swing is maybe the outstanding recent such trio, having Jay Leonhart on bass with the octogenarians John Bunch and Bucky Pizzarelli. If there’s any better example of the format, you want to hear them.
In conversations sampled for the paperwork of the present set, Roger Kellaway spoke of a tendency of the guitarist and the pianist to get in each other’s way. From Profit’s trio onward, a virtue was made of this, and maybe Profit liked being able to do harmonically interesting things within music that still pleased a conservative public. For harmonic invention, Profit was compared to Thelonious Monk, but even recordings from before 1940 demonstrate not only that he’d a lot of orthodox technique, but that his gradation of touch was as fine as any jazz pianist’s has ever been.
Which is by way of regretting that this isn’t the successful recording I hoped for, remembering quite a number of other things since Kellaway stood out as young pianist in the Clark Terry/Bob Brookmeyer Quintet. Lord, he was exciting! And he’s marvellous here on the ballad “Midnight Sun”, where his dynamics are crucial and almost breathtaking. I’m almost wondering whether he arrived at the studio in the mood for that, just as when Claude Hopkins, an exciting pianist of an older generation, finally was given his first solo album date and turned up in the studio not in the mood to excite: beautiful music, sorely disappointing to people who expected something very different.
This is a lot different from a Peterson trio, and I note that on the last recordings before a stroke compelled revision of Peterson’s style, from a live gig with Ellis and for the last time ever in this life Brown, Sir Oscar engaged the special services of Bobby Durham on drums, to forestall possible failures of empathy: a very responsible task.
It wasn’t just that the Peterson-Ellis-Brown trio hadn’t in years been a regular unit, it was the way they played. The name of the Alexander-Ellis-Brown trio was once misprinted Triple Threat, but that was the Peterson trio. When Brown reminisced about having recommended the late Nils-Henning Oersted Pedersen to his old boss, he said, “I knew he’d give Oscar trouble.” The Peterson trio with Ellis took no precautions against getting in each other’s way; they liked causing each other problems, and the greatness of their music was created by their solving these problems.
Positive comparisons with Peterson usually refer to other players being just different from him, as when the neglected Duke Jordan didn’t play the less interesting notes with which Peterson at times buried the inspired ones he also played. Kellaway was asking for trouble in recording “Moten Swing” at medium tempo, because other people will remember as fondly as he does Peterson’s timing and swing on a classic performance (with Brown, after Ellis had left and Ed Thigpen came in as the third member of a then piano-bass-drums trio). “Night Train” will only remind them the more, since both numbers are on the outstanding Peterson album named after the latter tune. Kellaway’s phrasing is too even, he doesn’t incorporate the little forward surges and laggings behind the beat of Peterson, and in this trio nobody’s giving anybody a hard time.
I’m not blaming Bruce Forman for his guitar not blending as did Ellis’s: no complaint if he continues to sound just as he does. Likewise Dan Lutz on bass, except that he tends to play high up, and Brown often worked his magic in the lower reaches. Kellaway’s also too obviously clean a player. Once the trio are through the perfectly satisfactory opener, Benny Golson’s “Killer Joe”, they are mostly just inferior Peterson.
Through the eight and a half minutes of “Cottontail”, Kellaway does seem preoccupied with the great Oscar, rather than hearing how little more than pastiche the performance is, complete with the cascading block-chords much as Peterson played them in emulation of Milt Buckner. Bill Evans could do that too, and with an abandon that seems to have been beyond Kellaway.
Peterson’s line, and indeed Kellaway’s line, is sacrificed to undue carefulness with note-values. On “Night Train”, Kellaway’s combination of cautious phrasing and harmonic ambition sounds pretty well off-key for a bit.
Most of this set is fine by ordinary standards, three immensely accomplished musicians who have played together regularly. I’m sure this trio is different from any Peterson trio, and that the live set mentioned in the notes deserved its huge ovation. Was it recorded? This set was a terrific risk, and sometimes musicians of Kellaway’s immense class bring off as unexpected triumphs what might have seemed in grave danger of being a less than satisfactory re-heat. This time it didn’t happen.