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The Art of the Trio

In case you didn't notice, trios are back. First Nirvana, now the Presidents of the United States of America have made threesomes hip again. While they never really went away (in jazz in particular), something about the '90s is especially conducive to trios. Maybe it's the musical equivalent of corporate down-sizing. If you're slogging across the country in a tour bus trying to make it as a quartet or quintet, a 20-25% layoff to tighten expenses and improve the bottom line can look mighty appealing. But there's more to it than that. A trio is just large enough to provide a variety of sound. There is no place to hide; a trio requires players who really listen to each other. If it's democratically run, there's no possibility of deadlock on a decision. And, it's easier to record well. So here are a bunch of trio recordings, either new or newly reissued. We've got updated surf (the Mermen, the Galaxy Trio), cool jazz (Jimmy Giuffre 3, the Tiny Bell Trio), neo-beatnik (Broun Fellinis, Morphine) and more. Enjoy!

Broun Fellinis
Aphrokubist Improvisations vol. 9,  Moonshine Music CD MM 80022-2, 1995

 West Coast beats

This San Francisco trio weaves Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, jazz, hip hop and extraterrestrial elements together into a bold, cosmic, ethno-Lovecraftian tapestry. Crisp rhythm tracks are punctuated by sparse bass proddings, cooled by lingering acoustic keyboard textures and shot through with tart, probing reed explorations. The sound is decidedly un-electric, very present and very close. Instrumental interludes relieve groove-backed recitations of the mythology of the Boohaabians, states of Brounsity and other extra-urban legends. For all we know, they may be the last poets of an ancient and forgotten civilization. -  Jason Staczek


Black Edgar Kenyatta, saxes, keyboards, vocals; Professor Borris Karnaz, drums, percussion, vocals; Ayman Rastabebish, bass, guitar.

The Blue Rider Trio
Preachin' The Blues,  Mapleshade Records CD 56962, 1995 (50:11)

 Raggy blues trio

 Preachin' The Blues features beautiful recordings of traditional acoustic blues songs, recorded live in the studio by a tight trio of gifted musicians. Some tunes are from the canon ("Statesboro Blues," "Gallows Pole") and others harken from the early days when "blues" and "rag" were used interchangeably. I enjoyed the rags the most, with their bouncy complex arrangements that are much more musical than what we typically attribute to the blues today. The feeling is like the first, acoustic Hot Tuna album, only much less sloppy. The only weakness lies in the perfunctory vocals, which are more old-timey than blues in their feeling. The Mapleshade production is wonderfully clean and simple, bringing out the simple richness of the trio's sound. -  Bill Kuhn

 Glenn Brooks says...
This CD, like all Mapleshades, was recorded live to two-track analog by Pierre M. Sprey, with no compression or limiting. It sounds great. The Blue Rider Trio reminds me of "Spider" John Koerner, Dave Ray and Tony Glover, whose terrific (and ground-breaking) 1963 white boy blues album,  Blues, Rags & Hollers has just been re-released on Red House Records (RHR CD 76).


Ben Andrews, guitar & vocals; Mark Wenner, harmonica; Jeff Sarli, slap bass.

The Handsome Family
Odessa,  Carrot Top Records CD SAKI005, 1994 (47:23)

 Country-western grunge

Yep, it's C&W all right, but unlike any I've ever heard. The sappy lyrics and pedal steel guitar are unmistakable, but toss in some muddy guitar and you've got a whole new animal on your hands. Lead singer Brett Sparks has a very dry, nasal voice and at times sounds a bit like Johnny Cash, but after about the fifth track his voice starts to wear a little thin which makes it tough to let this one play all the way through. Which, by the way, is okay with me because the best songs on the album are the first four cuts. One more thing. I know you can't judge a book by its cover, or an album by its cover art, but I have to say that Odessa contains some of the lamest artwork I've seen in a long time - if you can call PC clipart "artwork." -  Mark Oppfelt

 Glenn Brooks says...
That's why we stick to Macintosh clipart for Jelly.


Brett Sparks, guitar, vocals, keyboards; Rennie Sparks, bass, vocals; Mike Werner, drums, vocals.

Dave Douglas
The Tiny Bell Trio,  Songlines CD SGL 1504-2, 1994 (55:42)

 Cabaret jazz for the '90s

If the thought of a trumpet/guitar/drums jazz trio has you eyeing the door nervously, relax. Dave Douglas is not your screech-and-burn trumpet player; neither is a wispy Miles Davis impersonator. Douglas sticks mostly to the low-middle register, playing the trumpet with an agile grace that emphasizes subtle tone and phrasing rather than theatrical range and dynamics. On guitar, Brad Shoeppach works the space from chording accompanist to single-string soloist with great facility, while Jim Black is a most attentive and melodious drummer. The tunes are mostly originals by Douglas, and have some quirky turns that remind me of Thelonious Monk's music, as well as more than just a touch of klezmer or gypsy music. That three-legged waltz feeling, if you know what I mean. The Old World connection is emphasized by the inclusion of a Hungarian czardas, an obscure Brecht/Weill song, "The Drowned Girl," and tunes by Joseph Kosma (who wrote "Autumn Leaves") and Germaine Tailleferre, a member of the group of jazz-influenced French composers called "Les Six." (Dave Brubeck studied composition with Darius Milhaud, perhaps the most famous member of the group.) The music is gently dissonant, with its many shifts reminding me of small boat being rocked by waves coming from two directions at once. The superb recording captures every nuance in Douglas' playing, and presents a very realistic portrayal of the three musicians. Wonderful stuff! -  Glenn Brooks


Dave Douglas, trumpet; Brad Shoeppach, guitar; Jim Black, drums.

of related interest...

Dave Douglas
Parallel Worlds,  Soul Note CD 121226-2, 1993 (63:22)

Plays like a slightly bigger version of the Tiny Bell Trio, with violin, cello and bass filling in for the guitar.

Babkas,  Songlines CD SGL 1502-2, 1993, (61:15)
Ants to the Moon,  Songlines CD SGL 1505-2, 1994, (54:01)

Brad Shoeppach is also a member of this high energy alto sax/drums/guitar trio, whose exciting music is skronchier and more experimental than that of the Tiny Bell Trio.

Andy LaVerne Trio
Time Well Spent,  Concord Records CD CCD-4680

 Yet another excellent jazz piano trio

Pianist/composer LaVerne, bassist Mraz and drummer Foster team up to tackle a dozen standards, originals and jazz classics. LaVerne's approach is rooted in the reflective style of Bill Evans and all-star sidemen Mraz and Foster lend solid support and plenty of room to muse. No barn-burners here, but LaVerne's thoughtful interpretations make for fine evening listening. -  Jason Staczek


Andy LaVerne, piano; George Mraz, bass; Al Foster, drums.

Lonnie Smith Trio
Purple Haze: a Tribute to Jimi Hendrix,  MusicMasters Jazz CD 01612-65135-2, 1995 (56:19)

 Jazz trio pays homage to a great rock trio

Guitarist John Abercrombie joins organist Lonnie Smith and drummer Marvin "Smitty" Smith to pay tribute to Jimi Hendrix on four extended improvisations (the shortest clocks in at 9:47) inspired by Hendrix compositions. The result is fifty-six minutes and nineteen seconds of smoldering deep purple psychedelia. There's always danger of overplaying when you get three jazz virtuosos together to interpret popular music, but these three pay their respects in their own language without sacrificing the original. The music is unhurried and deeply funky and was clearly created by the group as a trio (or quartet perhaps-Lonnie Smith's bass playing is so agile it's easy to imagine they're actually four). This is a not a forum for guitar pyrotechnics but a true ensemble piece. The players share melodic, rhythmic and harmonic duties as needed. If you come to this expecting the guitar playing to sound like Jimi Hendrix's, you'll be disappointed. Abercrombie's raw silk style is his own, expressive and harmonically sophisticated, but miles away from Hendrix. The echoes of Hendrix's guitar style are probably louder in Lonnie Smith's overdriven and aggressive organ playing. Throughout, Marvin "Smitty" Smith simply shines, contributing rhythm and texture in equal parts. The recording, by the way, is terrific. Light some incense, slip on the headphones and turn it up loud. See you when you get back. -  Jason Staczek


Lonnie Smith, Hammond B-3 organ; John Abercrombie, guitar; Marvin "Smitty" Smith, drums.

Jimmy Giuffre 3
1961,  ECM CD(2) 1438/39, 1992 (44:32, 47:16)

  Chamber jazz with guts; highly influential

Jimmy Giuffre is a well-schooled jazz clarinetist (and occasional sax player) who has been much better known by musicians than the public. He is a very quiet player, who stays mostly on the lower register on the clarinet and works more with mood, melody and color than rhythm, harmony and dynamics. As such, he is a natural for ECM, a label which rarely does reissues, but made a welcome exception in this case. Giuffre formed his first drumless jazz trio in 1957 with Jim Hall on guitar and Ralph Peña on bass. Their eponymous (isn't that a great word?) recording on Atlantic had a minor hit with the song "The Train and the River." (If you have seen the famous 1958 TV special, "The Sound of Jazz," you may remember it.) The trio dispensed with the strong sense of beat that had been part of jazz for forty years at that time, and opened up the possibilities of melodic, rather than harmonic, improvisation. Both of these directions anticipated Ornette Coleman's breakthrough 1958 jazz, although Ornette probably never heard the Giuffre trio, and his music sounds completely different.

Giuffre's second trio, with Paul Bley on piano and Steve Swallow on bass, recorded two albums for Verve in 1961,  Fusion and  Thesis, which are reissued on this ECM two-CD set. All the elements come together on these two albums: strong melodic lines with loose open harmonic structures, free rhythmic sense ungrounded by a steady drumbeat, and beautiful mutual improvisation. Most of the tunes are taken at a stately tempo, and Giuffre confines himself to long legato lines on the clarinet. Bley's piano and Giuffre's clarinet carry on almost constant dialog, weaving the lines in and around each other. Steve Swallow rarely walks a beat for any length of time, but instead moves his lines to the front and back as the music pulses to and fro. Together, the three create emotionally charged yet quiet music of a very rare sort. It is hard to believe this music was recorded thirty-five years ago. If you enjoy any of the many recordings produced by ECM's Manfred Eicher, you will definitely enjoy this. And unlike some of the less successful ECM recordings, which can sound like directionless noodling, this album repays careful listening.

The digital reissue adds three songs not on the original LPs. The distinctive sound of all three instruments are well captured. I have a German LP of  Thesis, which conveys the sense of the recording studio space better than the CD, but fails to adequately capture Swallow's bass. This is very welcome reissue of a very important trio. -  Glenn Brooks


Jimmy Giuffre, clarinet; Paul Bley, piano; Steve Swallow, bass.

of related interest...

Jimmy Giuffre

The Jimmy Giuffre 3,  Atlantic CD 900981-2, 1957 (47:22)
Dragonfly,  Soul Note CD 121058-2, 1983

Paul Bley

Ramblin',  Red (Italy) CD 123117.2 (43:47)
Reissue of classic 1966 RCA trio recording.

Melvin Taylor & the Slack Band
Melvin Taylor & the Slack Band,  Evidence CD ECD 26073-2, 1995 (51:18)

 Slashing guitarist in a great club date

Melvin Taylor is a Chicago blues man with a flashy yet fluid guitar style that plays like a cross between George Benson and Stevie Ray Vaughn. This is the first CD under his name. For a decade, Taylor's been holed up in Rosa's Lounge, a Molotov cocktail of guitar pyrotechnics waiting to explode. There's an undeniable spark in his playing, but he would have been better served had this disk been released 5 years ago. It's just been too many years in the clubs and not enough in the studio. The result is a pedestrian set list which I'm sure kills in a club, but sounds like blues top 40 on disk: two tunes made famous by Stevie Ray Vaughn, one by Eric Clapton, and the umpteenth version of Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile." The album closes with an incongruous but lovely version of "Tequila." The three originals are unremarkable. But despite the weak choice of material, the sheer wizardry of his playing astounds, and there's much to enjoy on this disk. -  Bill Kuhn


Melvin Taylor, guitar and vocals; Willie Smith, bass; Steve Potts, drums.

Southern Culture on the Skids
Dirt Track Date,  DGC CD DGCD-24821, 1995 (49:10)

  Welcome to the New South

My this is one damn fine party record! I defy anyone with an ounce of good time in their blood to keep a straight face and an immobile behind when listening to this corn whiskey classic. The songs cover such timeless topics as cars and romance ("Voodoo Cadillac"), food and romance ("8 Piece Box"-"I started on a thigh, then I got me a breast"), cars and food ("Fried Chicken and Gasoline") and cars and food and romance ("Dirt Track Date"-"demolition figure eight, eatin' dinner off a paper plate"). "Greenback Fly" and "Firefly" examine Southern insects, while "White Trash" and "Soul City" cover the rest of the low life. Then there are the novelty numbers.

My hands down fave is "Camel Walk," a paean to the beautiful Little Debbie, the snack food queen whose treats are to Memphis and other enlightened places what Tastycakes are to Philadelphia. A couple of instrumentals round things out for good measure. The sound is fine, nothing great. These three folks are just real fine at playing the right stuff, and the goofiness belies their substantial instrumental expertise. Plenty of echo-laden whammy bar guitar by Rick, bouncing bass by Mary and, especially, snappy cowbells and drums by Dave make this album a greasy delight. All the licks are where you'd expect them, from the chicken pickin' guitar on "8 Piece Box" to the Link Wray fuzzbox on the instrumental "Skullbucket." Fans of the B-52s or the Ventures, as well as unconverted rockabilly nuts, will all find this album hits the spot like a good plate of Hoppin' John. -  Glenn Brooks

We also ramble about SCOTS in a Jam Session

personnel and production notes

David Hartman, vocals, drums, maracas; Mary Huff, vocals, bass, organ, hand claps; Rick Miller, vocals, guitar, tambourine. Michael Lipton, lap steel (on one track); Soul City Singers, background vocals. Produced by Mark Williams and Southern Culture on the Skids, recorded and mixed by Mark Williams, mastered by George Marino at Sterling Sound.

Ages 3 and Up,  Amphetamine Reptile/Atlantic CD AMREP 92640-2, 1995 (39:36)

 A Devo for the '90s

A trio of single-name school chums make their Amrep/Atlantic debut with a great collection of twenty quick & dirty pop party tunes. Most songs are shorter than 2:20; however there are a few that actually break the three-minute barrier. If there wasn't a niche called "New Wave '90s Music" there certainly is now. With humorous lyrics like "Being with you is like math class," as well as goofy songs about eating Oreos and taking your vitamins, you'd be hard pressed not to find a grin on your face as you spin this CD. An interesting side note: MTV darlings, The Presidents of the United States of America, are some of Supernova's biggest fans and used to open for them as recently as a year ago. -  Mark Oppfelt

 Glenn Brooks says...
And now, Southern Culture on the Skids is opening for the Presidents on their Japanese tour. Them trios gotta stick together!

personnel Art, bass; Dave, drums; Jo, guitar.

Galaxy Trio
Saucers Over Vegas,  Estrus CD ESD 105
In the Harem,  Estrus CD ESD 107

 Surfin' turf

Surf trios have been a mainstay of rock and roll ever since Dick Dale caught the big one with "Let's Go Trippin'" in 1963, and a whole new breed of threesomes are proudly carrying the tiki torch. Surf has always been pure party music (and surfers can party-remember Jeff Spicoli?) and Portland's Galaxy Trio rip it up with the best of them on these two releases from Bellingham, Washington's Estrus Records. The eight tracks on Saucers Over Vegas, their first release, range from the inspiring "Jack Lord's Hair" to "Saddle Sore," complete with Link Wray-style chording and a manic riff reminiscent of the "Batman" theme. "In the Harem" picks up where Vegas left off, with sand scorchers like "Surficide" and the Dale-inspired blizzard of notes in "Surf n' Destroy" (guaranteed to destroy a pick in one take). Elsewhere, tracks like "Hurus" find the Galaxy boys mixing Middle Eastern progressions with their surf riffs. Hey, once you've ridden a surfboard, there's nothing to hanging ten on a magic carpet.

While we're at it, we should point out that if trios are your bag, Estrus has 'em in spades. The Insomniacs'  Wake Up compilation (ESD 1219) is a rocking blend of Mersey-inspired '60s garage punk and Buzzcocks-style pop. Catchy hooks, fine song writing (hey, their songs even have bridges!), and vocal harmonies abound. Albuquerque's The Drags ( Dragsploitation...Now!, ESD 110) are a punk trio that reminded me of the Rezillos. The Trashwomen ( Spend the Night with the Trashwomen, ESD 1214) are surfin' sluts with guitars (and I guarantee your dog will love their vocal yelps and screams, but just watch your tweeters). And finally, we should mention that all Estrus releases are adorned with splendid retro cover art from Northwest legend Art Chantry. -  Scott Boggan

Charlie Hunter Trio
Bing, Bing, Bing!,  Blue Note CD CDP 7243 8 31809 2 9, 1995 (56:37)

 Silky hip neo-jazz

Charlie Hunter is an alumnus of the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, the innovative San Francisco hip hop group. On his second album as leader (produced by Lee Townsend), he plays an eight-string guitar on which he can create bass lines, cushiony organ-like chords or bouncy solos. With Ellis and Lane, we have here a genuine jazz trio. Lane's drumming is particularly good, adding substantial color to the tunes (a real benefit when there are only three players). The tunes, mostly by Hunter, have jazzy chord changes, 1965 Coltrane modal vintage, to buoy up the solos. But this is an album of the '90s, with plenty of rock and hip hop feeling to it. (They do a good cover of Nirvana's "Come As You Are.") I just wish there were more three-way interaction here. Ellis is the most frequent soloist, and often feels like he is simply walking the changes, without much give and take. But this is still a very enjoyable album, and I think we'll hear more good stuff from Hunter in the future. -  Glenn Brooks


Charlie Hunter, 8-string guitar; Dave Ellis, tenor saxophone; Jay Lane, drums. Guests: David Phillips, pedal steel guitar; Ben Goldberg, clarinet; Jeff Cressman, trombone; Scott Roberts, percussion.

16 Horsepower
Sackcloth 'n' Ashes,  A&M CD 31454 0416 2, 1996

 Alternative roots

Over the last twenty years, alternative rock has seldom been directly influenced by American roots music. Sure, roots-inspired bands such as the Blasters and Rockpile have gotten airplay on alternative radio. But with few exceptions-the brief cowpunk and punkabilly uprisings come to mind-everything from grunge to punk to industrial have primarily cocked their ears across the Atlantic for inspiration. This CD, and Son Volt's  Trace (also reviewed here, mine the riches of American roots and mix it with fresh inspiration to create a modern sound.

Denver's 16 Horsepower create an eerie, post-modern country music on  Sackcloth 'n' Ashes, their first full-length release. This spare trio-acoustic or slide guitars, banjo, or a turn-of-the-century accordion, backed by a rhythm section of standup bass and drums-sweeps over the listener with a sound as stark and desolate as a cold prairie wind. With a wail that is reminiscent of Ian McCulloch from Echo and the Bunnymen or Grant Lee Buffalo's Grant Lee Phillips, frontman David Eugene Edwards uses the language of the Old West to weave a hypnotic web of sin and redemption, violence and despair. "Heel on the Shovel" is a grave digger's soliloquy ("I'm diggin' you a shallow grave/And on your rotten bones I'll raise/Yellow daisies for my true love's hair") set to some tasty fingerpicking and a ghostly lap steel. "Strong Man" is a vigilante's plea for swift justice ("Let there be no hesitation/Get a rope and make it quick"); to my ears, it reads like a welcome commentary on eighteen months of televised OJ. The double-tracked acoustics and galloping rhythm section on "Red Neck Reel" create a ghostly cowboy jaunt-replete with shit-kickin' "Yee-ha!"s-that is incongruous with the defeatist mood of the lyrics ("Everybody knows my movement in this town/I chase my tail/Yeah I'm a fuckin' clown/But to you I cannot speak/My words to you would be worthless and weak"). "Black Soul Choir" uses a repetitious banjo line over a stutter step drum beat and walking bass to underscore man's dark underbelly ("Every man is evil/Yes and every man's a liar/Unashamed with wicked tongues/Sing in the Black Soul Choir"). Heck, the apocalyptic "Black Bush" ("Oh my brothers/These are the great Dust Bowl days/ Just take a gander round ya/Everything in a wicked haze") would even do Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor proud.

Like The Band before them (especially on their self-titled second LP), 16 Horsepower brings to life a mythical America by smartly fusing historical influences-chiefly in the lyrical setting and instrumentation-with a modern sensibility bordering on the Gothic. If you like Grant Lee Buffalo or Gun Club, check this one out. -  Scott Boggan


David Eugene Edwards, vocals, guitars, banjo, bandoneon, lap steel; Jean-Yeves Tola, drums; Keven Soll, bass.

Ben Folds Five
Ben Folds Five,  Passenger PSR 9501-2 (46:19)

 Spunky piano pop rides again

Late seventies, early eighties, it's all I can seem to think of when I listen to these guys. With each new song I find myself drawing parallels to a different figure from that musical time period: Squeeze, Billy Joel, Queen, Joe Jackson, they're all here, plus some more. Then there's this wacky doo-wa vocal thing going on in the background on a bunch of the songs. I didn't really want to like them: a little too much angst flying about, satirical or otherwise, to suit my taste. However, I'll be damned if every time I throw this on, my little toes don't just start a tappin' and I find I'm actually enjoying the ride in spite of myself. Despite what the name of the group might lead you to believe, we do have ourselves a trio here. There's the piano out in front played, very energetically, by Ben Folds himself, a gravelly, gruff sounding bass and some drums. Not your typical rock trio, but it seems to work. Imagine it's 10 o'clock on Saturday night, you're sitting in your dorm room and you need just the right tunes to get you pumped up for a big night on the town. Okay, okay, that doesn't work for you. Imagine it's 10 o'clock on Saturday night, you want something to help you garner the little burst of energy you need so you can finish up the cleaning and vacuuming before SNL comes on. In either case, I'd recommend giving Ben Folds Five a listen. I think you'll find it fits the bill quite nicely. -  Heather Preston


Ben Folds, piano, vocals; Robert Sledge, bass; Darren Jessee, drums.

The Mermen
Songs of the Cows,  Mesa CD 2-92685, 1996 (34:57)

 The world's best ambient psychedelic surf band

It starts off with Whitman's bass sounding like the helicopters in Apocalypse Now, then Thomas' guitar thrangs in and Jones fires up the drum artillery. Here's the Ventures on steroids, muscular surf music churning like the ultimate wave. This song, "Curve," is pretty typical of San Francisco's Mermen, who have all the surf instrumental chops down, but devote their instruments to a higher purpose. Jim Thomas, mastermind of the group, has oodles of vibrato, chopping power chords, and rapid bouzoukee-style picking that can erupt in a catchy pop tune, then slow down to create a bolus of architectural sound for mind-roaming. Some of it is very beautiful (one tune reminds me of a phase-distorted version of "Moonlight in Vermont"), some of it is very loud, and you can sense a real intelligence at work here. -  Glenn Brooks


Jim Thomas, guitar; Allen Whitman, bass; Martyn Jones, drums.

Bill Frisell, Kermit Driscoll, Joey Baron
Live,  Gramavision CD GCD 79504, 1995 (71:31)

 Spectacularly thoughtful jazz trio

A live recording from 1991 in Sevilla, Spain, this CD captures a night when everything went right. Three musicians listening to each other and completing each other's thoughts perfectly, for over an hour of engrossing music. Of course one of the highlights is Frisell's guitar-spiky, spacy, honky or swirling, and always with his unique tartness of tone-that for some reason makes me think of cowboys. Most of compositions are by Frisell, although there is a great spunky version of Sonny Rollins' "No Moe," introduced and interrupted by Frisell's excursions into 1950's electronic movie music, and a nice cover of John Hiatt's gentle "Have a Little Faith in Me." Driscoll and Baron contribute mightily also, forming a very solid trio. There is an astounding variety of music on this CD, from the piggy bounce of "Pip, Squeak/Goodbye" to the spacewalk waltz of "Child at Heart." Fine, fine stuff. -  Glenn Brooks


Bill Frisell, guitar; Kermit Driscoll, bass; Joey Baron, drums.

Brad Mehldau
Introducing Brad Mehldau,  Warner Bros. Records CD 9 45997-2, 1995 (64:01)

 Straight ahead and surefooted jazz

Brad Mehldau is a fine jazz pianist with tone and style more reminiscent of Bill Evans than anyone I've heard in a long time. Backed by an excellent rhythm section which includes bass player Christian McBride on several tracks, Mehldau's debut release shows great depth and competence. Along with three original compositions, the CD includes jazz standards such as Ellington's "Prelude To A Kiss" and Rodgers and Hammerstein's "It Might As Well Be Spring." His playing is melodic and true whether he's plunking softly behind a bass solo or hard and complex in front. Based on what Mehldau's put forth in his initial release, I think we can expect great things from this young pianist. This one's a keeper. -  Mark Craemer


Brad Mehldau, piano; Christian McBride, bass; Brian Blade, drums.

Simon and the Bar Sinisters
Look at Me I'm Cool,  Upstart CD 023, 1995 (41:46), distributed by Rounder

 Great snotty punkabilly

Simon Chardiet has been rocking New York bars for years with his own brand of supercharged surf punkabilly. The Bar Sinisters sound like what Dave Edmunds always seemed to be searching for: plenty of twanging coupled with some harder rocking. Simon's mastery of the 2:30 pop song recalls the conciseness of the first Ramones album, as well as its humor. Of course, this album doesn't startle the way the Ramones did, and sloppy seconds are never quite as satisfying as the first time around. But it's hard not to smile at a warped rockabilly rewrite of Little Feat's "Willin'"-"Speed, weed, and whiskey have made me lose what's left of my mind." And therein lies the disk's biggest weakness. Chardiet too often has a smirking vocal delivery that's the equivalent of laughing at your own jokes. But since I share Chardiet's obvious love of both the goofy and hard-driving sides of rockabilly, it's easy to overlook the vocal idiosyncrasies. -  Bill Kuhn


Simon Chardiet, guitar, vocals; Blackie, bass; Erik Parker, drums.

Yes,  Rykodisk CD RCD 10320 or LP RALP 10320, 1995 (37:01)

 Great pop by a jazzy trio

Morphine's latest is another propulsive set of their punchy horn and bass driven pop. Morphine has an unmistakable sound, and the unique lineup allows for a surprisingly wide ranging set of explorations. By maintaining a pop sensibility throughout, they are able to play with three-minute ideas and avoid (for the most part) lapsing into indulgent diversions. Mark Sandman's deep brooding vocals are especially effective in the spooky slower tunes. If you haven't heard Morphine before, it's hard to find a good reference point to explain the music. I guess I'd call it Beat with a beat, hipster lyrics laid over this far-out, churning sound. The sax and bass pump, driving the sound relentlessly forward, on the road to who knows where. They're definitely not for everyone, but if you're tired of the same old sound, give Yes a spin. -  Bill Kuhn

 Glenn Brooks says...
Morphine typically uses a lot of echo and, on this recording, overdubbing, to create a larger than life sound-the sax sounds often something like a foghorn-that is not meant to be realistic. The CD and LP sound very similar, with the LP having just a touch more ambience and the CD having better bass extension.


Mark Sandman, two-string slide bass, vocals; Dana Colley, baritone sax; Billy Conway, drums.

Stefano Battaglia, Dominique Pifarely, Paolino Dalla Porta
 Triplicity DDQ (Italy) CD 128010-2, 1995, (63:33)

  Something beyond jazz, very beautiful

This is wonderful improvised music, midway on the axis between jazz and classical chamber music. These are all three very strong musicians, who here improvise twelve numbered trios, with three interludes each formed by a duo and a solo by the third musician. A wonderful variety of moods, and no weak spots. The bright up-front recording captures the piano especially well. -  Glenn Brooks


Stefano Battaglia, piano; Dominique Pifarely, violin; Paolino Dalla Porta, bass.

Troika,  Intuition CD INT 2078 2, 1995 (57:33)
Beyond Words,  Chesky Records CD JD130, 1995 (71:51)

  Q: fusion or world or new age? A: Oregon

Founded as a quartet in 1970 with Colin Walcott (later Trilok Gurtu) on percussion, Oregon has always been a hard band to pigeonhole, God bless 'em! They were first thought of as a jazz fusion band, and the structure of their music is often fusionish, with open-sounding modal melodies hovering over simple but unusual chord changes. But their instrumentation, with Towner's acoustic guitars and McCandless playing mostly oboe and English horn instead of alto or tenor sax, gives them a distinctive sound all their own. They are masters of group improvisation, often in a "free" sense, with little preordained structure and no sense of individual soloing. Finally, they anticipated the current interest in world music, drawing especially on Indian influences, and have certainly influenced new age performers. Yet they remain uniquely Oregon.

They recently became a trio and recorded these two CDs.  Troika leans a bit toward the orchestral, with Towner's synthesizer work prominently featured on most tracks. There are two short, skittery free improvisations, and several spacy sound-color cuts intermixed with bouncy acoustic numbers. A lot of variety, as usual for Oregon. This CD, produced by Oregon and recorded at four different times and places, gives a good survey of their sound, but does not stand out as an especially distinctive work.  Beyond Words was produced by David Chesky and recorded in a church. As usual for Chesky, the sound is very clean, with Glen Moore's bass especially well captured. This is almost an Oregon "greatest hits" CD, with half of the tunes from previous Oregon recordings, all given spirited performances here. It ends with the three-part "Silver Suite," which is mostly taken at a slow, introspective, flexible tempo that almost reaches stasis. When Oregon is in a groove, there is no other group that can touch them, but they don't hit the groove all the time. -  Glenn Brooks


Ralph Towner, guitars, piano, synthesizers; Glen Moore, bass; Paul McCandless, woodwinds, penny whistle.

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