This top-of-the-line piano trio plays with an intense beauty that is, perhaps, not often enough interrupted by joy.
Gary Peacock is now 82 years old, and he is playing with wisdom, experience, and a certain timelessness on his side. After his 30 years being featured as the bassist in Keith Jarrett’s “Standards Trio” with Jack DeJohnette, it became easy to forget that Peacock was never much of a jazz “standards” guy. His two most formative gigs would seem to have been his time with Albert Ayler and with Paul Bley in the 1960s. (He also played with Bill Evans and subbed the bass chair in the Miles Davis Quintet.) He started his musical life as young pianist, then moved to drums, then found the bass. Today, after 60-plus years on the scene, his music has gravitas but also a lightness.
Tangents is his second consecutive trio recording with pianist Marc Copland and drummer Joey Baron. Jarrett’s trio isn’t happening anymore, and this very different group is Peacock’s mainstay. Copland does not dominate the piano trio format they way Jarrett does, leaving Peacock more room to play melodies and to equalize the harmonic burdens. Baron, who I once thought of as a snapping, somewhat aggressive drummer, is all tact and atmosphere in this band, resulting in a balance that is rare in a trio.
Also balanced is the relative feeling of the compositions here. Three tracks are freely improvised or are based on such a small compositional nugget that they are exercises in association and motivic development. Another group are originals by Peacock or Copland that present short but pungent themes to inspire the music. Finally, two standards are presented.
There are two compositional sketches by Baron — open-ended tone poems. “In and Out” begins with a drum solo that invites Peacock in for some playful dialog. “Cauldron” is a trio affair built on a puckish motif, but both are under three minutes. “Empty Forest”, the purely spontaneous track, is an exercise in restraint that finds each musician pulling back and listening. It arcs over seven minutes, with heaping doses of silence between notes, Baron coloring on cymbals or tapping on toms, a conversation between bass and piano that is part call and response, part counterpoint.
The tunes composed by Peacock are the bulk of the music, however. “Rumblin’” is a bit of an outlier: a down-home lick that sounds like a country-fried blues. Rather than doling out solos the traditional way, the trio allows ideas to emerge from the pulse in waves — Peacock rises up for a thought, then Copland takes over for a bit, but Peacock returns such that Baron gets to sit up on the bell of his cymbal and speak as well. The theme doesn’t return, but the groove takes you out.
Most of Peacock’s songs are more contemplative and beautiful, but they can wear thin as a result of some apparent sameness. “December Greenwings” has a gentle, start-stop theme that spins into improvisation that resembles embroidery. “Tempei Tempo” develops into a walking groove after playing a long bass intro and the introduction of a theme with a tumbling downward angle and a flirtation with a funk pedal tone. “Contact” works a very gradual up-ramp until it gets to a similar groove feeling, with Peacock and Copland playing the same funky blues lick, the tune’s real hook. Then, there is the title track. It begins (again) with a bass solo. The trio ramps up slowly (again) in intriguing, poetic ways. Eventually, the band finds its way (again) to a pedal tone moment in which a pulse takes over. Does Tangents -- despite so much great playing -- feel monotonous?
Copland’s contribution, “Talkin' Blues”, is a sly, modal piece that moves around with a blues feeling but not within a standard blues harmonic structure. To me, it feels like a relief because it provides a longer structure -- just more “song”, I guess -- for the trio to craft, play with, transform. The same can be said for the two standards here. “Blue in Green”, the classic Miles Davis/Bill Evans theme from Kind of Blue gets it all right: the moodiness but also the long form of a simple melody. Peacock solos with a playful bounce that be carries into his accompaniment of Copland, such that you can listen to either with pleasure. “Spartacus” is the famous Alex North theme from the 1960 film, another minor mood that is right in the trio’s wheelhouse.
The difference with “Spartacus” is that the composition contains incredible rays of harmonic sunshine that give your ears some lift. Peacock’s trio, too often for me, lapses into a gorgeous seriousness. It’s a great band, but Tangents simple contains too few of these... tangents from the main. On a rainy, introspective day this collection is either exactly what you need to reinforce your mood to perhaps too much of a shimmering thing.