Today, I’d like to talk briefly about the PIANO TRIO (with bass and drums, that is) as a jazz unit in itself. This is because I have always appreciated the particular freedom and interaction  between the instruments which this line-up makes possible. 

Of course in the 1950s, the piano was the predominant solo instrument. Bass solos were rare and the drums were usually restricted to exchanges of 4s or 8s. And during the piano solo, the bass and drums just accompanied unobtrusively. Take any typical Bud Powell or (if you must) Oscar Peterson performance.



With the BILL EVANS trio of the early 60s came a different approach. The three instruments were playing together on more equal terms. Of course, Bill had the opportunity to play with a series of virtuoso bassists including Scott La Faro, Chuck Israels, and later Eddie Gomez and Mark Johnson. Paul Motian’s drumming was subtle but powerful in its contribution.



Fast forward to the 80s and, to my ears, the Evans trio stylistic tradition was taken up by the BRAD MEHLDAU trio. Brad has latterly used a relatively heavy drummer with an 8-quaver feel called Jeff Ballard but, for the first years, the trio included the sensitive Jorge Rossi whose feel reminds me of Paul Motian.



KEITH JARRETT’s long standing trio with Gary Peacock and Jack Dejohnette has achieved a very high level of joint improvisation, with Peacock taking something of a back seat and Dejohnette forging a creative counterpoint to Jarrett’s lines. Particularly exciting is the long coda of tags on the end of Just in time from the live recording Standards in Norway.



The Jarrett trio baton has passed to the KEVIN HAYS trio with Doug Weiss on bass and the brilliant Bill Stewart on drums, at least to judge by their CD Live at Small’s. Thrilling and authoritative co-improvisation, culminating in an awesome take on Charlie Parker’s Cheryl which contains the best constructed drum solo I have ever heard.



One of the joys of a mature piano trio is the confidence the players have in each other. This enables them to relax enough to sound as if playing as one person-in-three. My desert island disc in this respect is Pot luck from the album Kelly at midnight by the WYNTON KELLY trio with Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones (not Jimmy Cobb!). I always make anyone who comes to me for drum lessons listen to it as the perfect example of how a rhythm section should blend and fuse together.



There are two very wise artistic maxims: LESS IS MORE and ARS EST CELARE ARTEM (“the trick is to hide the art”). Both are beautifully illustrated by the HORACE PARLAN trio with George Tucker and Al Harewood. This unit backed saxophonists like Dexter Gordon, Stanley Turrentine and Booker Ervin on iconic albums of the early 60s but they also gigged and recorded as a trio.

As I mentioned in the earlier blog about Carl Perkins, Horace has a unique, necessarily limited style caused by damage to the fingers of his right hand through childhood polio. He turns this very much to his advantage in powerful, bluesy phrases which are instantly recognisable and his partners complement this style to perfection.



Talking of “les(s) is more”, I cannot finish without admitting my enthusiasm for the LES McCANN trio of the early 60s. Critics tend to dismiss this idiomatic example of the “soul jazz” craze but I don’t. The trio has Ron Jefferson keeping impeccable time on drums and the rock-solid Leroy Vinnegar on bass. Although it is apparent that Les has a pretty limited knowledge of harmony, he wisely sticks to the basics and plumbs a rich vein of funky one-chord-fits-all licks. The attraction is that they swing like the clappers and I have a nostalgic weakness for all that ersatz gospel schtick anyway…………………………..

Next time on I LOVE A PIANO, I shall be enthusing about some of the trios I have participated in and sharing them with you on the “Music” page.

Spike Wells