17 February 2014

Improv Column: Wayne McConnell – The Modern Jazz Piano Trio

Pianist Wayne McConnell examines The Modern Jazz Piano Trio


    The art of playing in a trio is very dear to my heart as a pianist.  I’d say it is my most favoured format.  I enjoy the textural combinations of bass, drums and piano but also the space between the instruments.  It allows for focus on individuals, the group sound and all of the possibilities of texture in between.  

    I’m not here to give you a history lesson but it is important to understand where things have come from to look accurately at where we are now. Historically it is a form that has evolved a great deal. The trio can be comprised of instruments we might not usually associate with the notion of "the piano trio".  Jelly Roll Morton had a trio with clarinettist Johnny Dodds, and drummer Baby Dodds.  Teddy Wilson had the same format with Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa.  Then there are all the wonderful trios that used guitar in lieu of drums: Clarence Profit, Nat King Cole and later on, Oscar Peterson. One pianist that certainly didn't "need" a trio was Art Tatum.  He could play in a way that made you never miss the band.  Despite that, he did have a trio, a great one featuring Tiny Grimes on guitar and Slam Stewart on bass.  Tatum cut out some of the pyrotechnics so his style would fit this format. Then came Erroll Garner who used piano, bass and drums and his left hand really took the role of the guitar often playing on all four beats. His right hand would play dense chords as well as trumpet-like lines.  Bud Powell changed things again by imitating horn-type ideas and utilizing the left hand to accent and accompany the right hand in using quite simple voicings. He was initially joined by Curly Russell and Max Roach. He later used musicians such as Ray Brown, Paul Chambers, Buddy Rich, Roy Haynes and Art Taylor.  The list of important piano trios is too long to go on and explain for the purposes of this article but I will list some names that you should go and check out if you are new to this.  Duke Ellington Trio, Ahmad Jamal (more on Ahmad later), Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Hank Jones, Phineas Newborn, Wynton Kelly, Red Garland and more "modern" such as Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner, Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau and many more. 

    I’ve been thinking about the subject of jazz piano trios or perhaps more specifically modern jazz trios because I recently saw the wonderful Ahmad Jamal in concert.  Any jazz pianist will tell you how important Ahmad is and that his offerings to jazz piano have paved the way towards the modern jazz trio.  They will talk about the "economy" in his playing, the space that he uses and the textures.  They will also talk about the arrangements and the material, evident in the Live at the Pershing album that sold over 1 million copies.  What a lot of people fail to realise is that Ahmad is still on the cutting edge of the piano trio and still pioneering the way in the modern jazz trio format.  Many fans of Ahmad’s music will read this and say "Yeah, I’ve known that for years".  My gripe is this; why isn’t there more coverage of him in the jazz media?  You don’t see him winning Downbeat polls or being hailed as an innovator and you certainly don’t see him winning the current polls.  Yes, he’s in Downbeat but under the Hall of Fame section, and he was called "Living Jazz Legend" by the Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts.  Well, excuse me for this outburst but wooopty-f-ing-do.  Ahmad Jamal is much more than just a living legend, he’s doing a lot more than just living.

    His current band is not technically a "trio" but that’s only academic as it is a piano trio with percussion.  It features Reginald Veal on double bass,  Herlin Riley on drums and Manolo Badrena on percussion.  The music that you hear on his latest albums Blue Moon and his most recent Saturday Morning are in my view, the perfect example of what the modern jazz trio is about.  It draws on the evolution of the format and pushes it into a new era.  Ahmad is distinctly himself, but the way in which he is playing is distinctly different to those trio recordings in the 50s.  Of course they are, he’s grown in years and matured.  The music I heard that night at the Festival Hall was far from "a mature sound".  It was playful, youthful, energetic, intelligent, swinging, grooving, virtuosic, floaty and just about every other word that I can find to describe the modern jazz trio.  The only thing that doesn’t fit the word modern is the number we call age.  At 85 it's true, he is no spring chicken, but forget the number, listen to his music.  In my view, he sounds just as innovative as Brad Mehldau, Tord Gustavsen, Vijay Iyer, Danilo Perez, and Fred Hersch and yet we don’t see his name in the same category.  Is age the only thing stopping him from being associated with the modrn jazz trio gang?  It would appear so.  He tours constantly but I think the critics and jazz marketing departments need to understand that he is not touring or playing music as a result of what he achieved in the 50s but he is up there with the best of the best of today, creating interesting, innovative American Classical Music (as he likes to call it).  Don’t believe me?  Have a listen to Saturday Morning and then have a listen to the podcast I did with him a few months back.  Surely I’m not the only one who thinks he deserves to be thought of in light of today’s music and not just for the wonderful things he did in the 50s?  


Wayne McConnell


To hear Wayne McConnell interviewing Ahmad Jamal, follow this link:

Brighton Jazz School Podcast Episode 34 – Ahmad Jamal 

To discuss this further, Wayne invites you to post comments on the Brighton Jazz School Facebook Page.


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