Break down jazz to its most elemental geometric shape, and what remains is a triangle, a configuration exquisite in its simplicity and symmetry. That's right, a trio: three musicians untangling a web of melody, harmony and rhythm, then knitting it back together again with fresh colors and new textures. Scan the list of modern masters in the jazz hall of fame, from Nat King Cole to Bill Evans to Keith Jarrett, and you'll find dozens of pianists who fronted threesomes--and thrived.
"The trio is the perfect triangle," confirms 47-year-old, Roxboro-born pianist Frank Kimbrough, who brings a trio to the ArtsCenter on Saturday as part of a mini-tour of North Carolina. "The trio contains just enough people to have a dialog. For each additional person you add to the band, it becomes exponentially more difficult to have the same caliber of conversation. Because there are only three players, each person contributes to the music. Everyone is exposed. The trio is the trinity."
And--get this--in these new-fangled times, the old-fashioned piano trio is currently a hot commodity. Discs by the Brad Mehldau Trio (Anything Goes, Warner Bros.) and The Bad Plus (Give, Columbia), a pair of trend-setting combos, reside near the top of the jazz charts. Yet I wonder, does Mehldau's fascination with the repertoire of alt-rock heroes Radiohead or TBP's chuckling version of Black Sabbath's lumbering "Iron Man" translate to chart success or, oh... merely a sellout?
"I've heard Brad Mehldau's group live," Kimbrough says, "and they're wonderful. And Ethan Iverson [The Bad Plus pianist] is a friend of mine. One of the first shows he heard when he moved to New York was my trio, he tells me. I wish them both all the luck in the world, but I can't get too close to their music. I almost try to avoid it."
The pianist pauses to reflect. "I need to have my own little corner, you know."
Joining the trio in Carrboro will be drummer Al Sergel and bassist Ron Brendle, the pianist's old pal from their undergrad days at Appalachian State University in Boone. Though Kimbrough and Brendle have been making beautiful music together for nearly three decades, much of what they'll play on Saturday will be brand new. Though they'll undoubtedly dust off a standard or two, the bulk of the repertoire will be drawn from Lullabluebye (Palmetto), which contains eight heady originals penned by Kimbrough.
As the title suggests, the disc indeed frames lullabies and the blues--and lots more. Kimbrough's longtime fans will recognize the pianist's trademark bittersweet melodies and push-pull rhythms, which surge tide-like to the fore then slip away into the abyss. What's surprising is the overall accessibility of late, via an ultra-sympatico New York rhythm section of bassist Ben Allison and drummer Matt Wilson. Though the threesome occasionally skirts the edge of avant-garde-style improv ("Whirl"), the session retains a well-defined sense of structure and forethought.
In other words, Lullabluebye ain't no indulgent blowing session where the participants entertain each other and nobody else. Instead, this is challenging stuff that deserves, no, requires an audience. "Ben's Tune," for instance, wiggles like a vintage soul-jazz workout circa 1962, pushed by Allison's slippery funk and Wilson's angular rim-shots. Then there's "You Only Live Twice," the melancholy John Barry movie theme, reconfigured as a majestic samba.
Never a copycat, Kimbrough as pianist avoids cliches at all costs. Therefore, I was surprised to hear the pianist paraphrase the notorious twang of the James Bond guitar lick at the tail-end of his gorgeous solo. "Are you sure?" Frank winces as we discuss the disc. "You know, I'd never heard the original version of 'You Only Live Twice.' Didn't Nancy Sinatra sing it?" he laughs.
"Actually, I stole the idea from Ron [Brendle]," Kimbrough explains. "At his suggestion, we worked it up for one of his CDs a couple of years ago." Transformed into a bubbling cauldron of piano, bass and drums, the version of "Twice" as heard on Lullabluebye is a joyous tour de force. I hope the cats revisit it on Saturday.
A New York resident since 1981, Kimbrough's personal discography represents only one facet of the total musician. He still gigs and records with various bands led by Allison (Buzz (Palmetto)) and the award-winning Maria Schneider Orchestra, considered by many to be the world's premier big band. Titled Concert in the Garden (artistShare), the Orchestra's new CD will appear later this summer. And as a founding member of the renowned Jazz Composers' Collective, Kimbrough just capped a week of performances at the Jazz Standard in New York City.
Kimbrough's increasingly high profile is marked by an excellent feature in the current issue of Jazz Times by Nate Chinen. The pianist reminisced to Chinen about his Southern roots and his first exposure to the quintessential piano trio. "Growing up in rural North Carolina," says Kimbrough, "there was no record store or bookstore. I had to drive 30 miles to see a movie or to buy a book... I didn't become exposed to jazz until I was probably around 14 or 15, and it was on PBS--the Bill Evans Trio. There had always been this dichotomy between pop music and my classical studies, a very clear line. This was a great way to take the parts that I loved in each of those and channel them into one thing. That was it."
"The Evans trio popularized the concept of an equilateral triangle," Kimbrough further explains to the Independent. "The bass wasn't playing only a supportive role. The drums weren't only keeping time. It was a revelation."
Sometimes Kimbrough, now the urbane New Yorker, rewinds to those Person County days of his youth. He remembers not only his mindbending exposure to Bill Evans, but to the polished piano-playing of him mom and the scratchy fiddle bowed by his dad as they filled up the living room with homemade music.
"Meanwhile, I was sitting in the den listening and absorbing," Kimbrough recalls. "I can't even tell you today what they were playing together back then, but it could have been hymns. They would take me to church as a child and I would come home and play what I heard. I had a pretty good ear.
"Mabel Woods, the organist at the Baptist church, taught my mom to play, and she taught me, too, for seven years," Kimbrough recalls. "She was the best teacher I ever had."
"She must've been proud of you," I offer.
"Yeah, absolutely," the pianist nods. "She wanted to talk about all the places I had been."
Holy trinities: Frank Kimbrough's top five jazz trios
I love the interaction that's possible with three people making music together, acting as one. Of the hundreds of piano trio recordings that I've heard during the past 25 years, these are five that I often revisit. --Frank Kimbrough
Duke Ellington -- Money Jungle (Blue Note/1962) Ellington's trio output is scarce, but this date, cut when he was in his sixties, is ahead of its time. A rough and tumble outing, the record features bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Max Roach. It's said that Mingus and Max weren't getting along at this session, and the tension present in the music reflects that. A pair of beautiful ballads, "Fleurette Africaine" and "Warm Valley," keeps things from boiling over.
Herbie Hancock -- Inventions and Dimensions (Blue Note/1963) This mostly improvised session is one of Herbie's best records, yet it came very early in his career, preceding his association with Miles Davis. In his rhythm mates he has the best of both worlds: Paul Chamber's impeccably swinging bass and Willie Bobo's Latin-tinged drums, accented by Osvaldo Martinez on conga and bongo. The music is loosely constructed to allow for maximum freedom, but it goes down easy. Only 22 at the time, Hancock plays here with the elegance and taste that's been so often imitated, but this is the real thing.
Chick Corea -- Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (Blue Note/1968) If you own only one recording by Chick Corea, this is it. The deep bass of Miroslav Vitous, then a newly arrived prodigy from Czechoslovakia, teams up with the crackling drums of master Roy Haynes. The program includes early Corea compositions supplemented by Thelonious Monk's "Pannonica" and the standard, "My One And Only Love," in perhaps its most beautiful version ever.
Paul Bley -- Not Two, Not One (ECM/1998) This is Bley's classic mid-'60s trio in a reunion that put them back together after a 34-year break, and the results are darkly astounding. The range of Bley's 97-key Bosendorfer Imperial piano (the extra keys are on the bass end) is utilized fully, and the interplay of the trio is telepathic. Comprised primarily of completely improvised solos, duos and trios, there are references to standards like "My Old Flame," but this record is really about living in the moment.
Keith Jarrett -- At The Deerhead Inn (ECM/1992) Keith Jarrett's "Standards Trio" with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette has been together since the early '80s, and many are familiar with their prolific output. This record's different, though. Drummer Paul Motian, 17 years after his last gig with Keith's quartet, joins Jarrett and Peacock for one night only. The Deerhead in Delaware Water Gap, Pa., was where Jarrett cut his teeth as a player, and this program of standards is very loose and informal. With material so familiar, the trio is free to converse freely. Wish I coulda been there.