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Top 10 Favorite “Piano Trio Plus” Tracks

Or maybe “Augmented Piano Trio?” I don’t know what to call it, really, but the Trio plus Chamber-Ensemble on my Ripples album have evoked a lot of questions about the inspiration and methodology behind that music. The hierarchy I had in mind is difficult to articulate. It’s not really “octet music” in the sense of the piano, bass and drums being a rhythm section. Neither, though, is the work of the rest of the ensemble purely decorative window-dressing. Essentially, the trio is the central unit with the rest of the musicians playing a supporting role, but a (hopefully) well-integrated and important one.

As such, I have had cause to think about the work that has inspired me most in that vein. For this list I’ve limited myself strictly to piano trios augmented by at least three other musicians. I have left out tracks in which the other instruments don’t play much (the Cedar Walton/Art Blakey “That Old Feeling,” for example, as much as I love the moments when the horns kick in) and have also left out music in which there are strings that could disappear without major impact (as much as I love Phineas Newborn, Jr.’s While My Lady Sleeps album, the strings aren’t entirely essential). I have also left out anything in which members of the “supporting” ensemble become featured soloists, rendering the trio a rhythm section – there’s nothing wrong with that, but at that point we’ve got apples and oranges.

Without further ado:

1 ) Herbie Hancock “Riot” (from Speak Like a Child; Trio: Herbie, Ron Carter, Mickey Roker; arranger Hancock)

I suspect Thad Jones (who plays on this track) had a hand in the orchestrating, whether in a hands-on way or simply through his influence. The main point, though, is that the trio plays with incredible swing and improvisational flexibility while the 3-piece wind section weaves in and out with gorgeous depth of color and a deep level of rhythmic integration that blurs the lines between improvisation and scoring.

2 ) McCoy Tyner “Song of the New World” (from Song of the New World; Trio: McCoy, Juney Booth, Alphonse Mouzoun; arranger William Fischer)

The sheer level of power here debunks the notion that “orchestral” instruments inherently serve to lighten the mood. This one was chosen over “the Divine Love” in a neck-and-neck race simply because of a slightly more significant integration of the ensemble textures into the fabric of McCoy’s improvisation. Likewise, his brilliant Fly With the Wind album features Hubert Laws soloing on flute. The rules is the rules.

3 ) Renee Rosnes “Dear Old Stockholm” (from Without Words; Trio: Renee, Buster Williams, Billy Drummond; arranger Bob Freedman)

I heard this album in college and it just knocked me out – I urge you to dig it up. I’ve always been a fan of Renee’s playing and the integration and rhythmic integrity of the “classical” instruments here provided me with my first light bulb of how organic “jazz and strings” could be.

4 ) Bill Evans “Blue Interlude” (from With Symphony Orchestra; Trio: Bill, Chuck Israels, Grady Tate; arranger Claus Ogerman)

Thanks to the prodding of my Wesleyan colleague Neely Bruce, I have actually done numerous jazz arrangements of Chopin material, which has no shortage of soulful qualities. But none of them sound as good as this (though maybe they would if Bill Evans were playing them?). It’s challenging to get lush and soulful in the same package, but Evans’ trio and Ogerman succeed here.

5 ) Abdullah Ibrahim “Damara Blue” (from African Symphony; Trio: Abdullah, Marcus McLaurine, George Grey; arranger Daniel Schnyder)

I’ve long been a fan of the work Abdullah Ibrahim (formerly Dollar Brand), back to his work with the South African group the Jazz Epistles in the early 1960s. As such I picked up and enjoyed this delightful album, not realizing until after several listens that it was orchestrated by the multi-talented Daniel Schnyder, whose association with Michael Mossman in the 1990s allowed me to both hear him play and spend a short but mind-blowing period of composition study with him. He is a seriously advanced musician, so it’s all the more admirable that his writing here never overwhelms the elegance of Ibrahim’s trio.

6 ) Ahmad Jamal “Pittsburgh” from (Pittsburgh; Trio: Ahmad, James Cammack, David Bowler; arranger Richard Evans)

Ahmad Jamal is no stranger to a) long-term trios or b) augmenting and blending them with larger ensembles. I could have easily picked one of his 1959 recordings with his well-loved trio (with Israel Crosby and Vernell Fournier) plus strings or one of his 1960s recordings with his highly underrated trio of that era (with Jamil Nasser and Frank Gant) plus voices. Instead, though, I picked the energetic late-1980s work of another established Jamal trio (this one lasted for years, and his relationship with bassist Cammack, on recordings alone, went on for another twenty years after this) with the well-integrated work of the versatile Richard Evans, best known to many for his work with another trio (that of Ramsey Lewis) and whose work with Ahmad goes back to the 1962 album Macanudo.

7 ) Ron Carter “Patchouli” (from Peg Leg; Trio: Kenny Barron, Ron, Ben Riley; arranger Bob Freedman)

It would take a lot for this trio to get messed up, and there is no messing-up in Bob Freedman’s arrangements. He has done a lot of great orchestrations for Ron’s projects and I only later realized that he was the arranger behind the Renee Rosnes album above. I’ll admit I’m almost cheating here, as the rest of the album features a larger rhythm section with Buster Williams on bass and Ron on piccolo bass, but this track has Ron down low.

8 ) Hampton Hawes “How Are Things In Giocca Morra?” (from Plays Movie Musicals; Trio: Hamp, Bob West, Larry Bunker; arranger Billy Byers)

This one took me a couple listens, as the arrangements of Billy Byers (who I tend to think of as more of a big band writer) on this album are a bit syrupy. But late 60s Hampton Hawes records have a great edge to them that on this track cuts through (and ultimately is enhanced by) the sweetness.

9 ) Alice Coltrane “Sri Rama Ohnedaruth” (from Lord of Lords; Trio: Alice, Charlie Haden, Ben Riley; arranger Coltrane)

Like Alice herself, this one is difficult to categorize or to compare to much else in jazz history. There are moments that are downright Western classical sounding and moments that are full-on Alice Coltrane rubato trio thrashing. Spend the 6 minutes to check it out and come up with your own adjectives if you must.

10 ) Monk “Reflections” (from The Composer; Trio: Monk, Larry Gales, Ben Riley; arranger Oliver Nelson)

This album took a lot of criticism, with some saying that Nelson’s arrangements didn’t entirely fit into the spirit of Monk. I don’t know if I agree, but I will say that to my ears this particular performance of one of Monk’s loveliest ballads is lush without losing any of its Monk-ness.

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