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Solving For Trio X

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Marc Medwin catches up with one of the best free-improv groups operating today: saxophonist Joe McPhee, drummer Jay Rosen and bassist Dominic Duval.

Solving For Trio X

There’s a moment, about 15 seconds into the first disc of Trio X’s On Tour 2008 box set, where bassist Dominic Duval quotes “So What.” It’s not exact — one note is missing — and, most likely, he didn’t do it consciously. The quotation flies by with the speed and certainty only a veteran can muster, appended by some more of the spacious modal phrases for which he’s known and justly lauded. Drummer Jay Rosen engages him with similar rhythms on cymbals, the two making small contrapuntal waves as the improvisation takes wing. Saxophonist and trumpeter Joe McPhee lays out, waiting for the precise instant to interject. If it weren’t Trio X, such a heavily interactive instance might have blown by me. Modality is nothing new, and with the octave and its divisions still in use as the most common point of return, some historical motive-borrowing is a racing certainty. Yet, this is a group whose 13-year history is fraught with reference of all sorts and on multiple levels. Consciously cultivated or not, these rhetorical modes of expression set the group apart from the many claiming “free improvisation” as their language.

Each member brings decades of previous experience to every performance, but the group dynamic overtly fosters their various musical experiences. Duval and Rosen have recorded myriad projects, separately and together, for Robert Rusch’s Creative Improvised Music Project label, but they are by no means limited to jazz. “Oh man,” Rosen says, “I was playing everything! I was playing rock and roll, funk, R and B, bebop, Latin music, I was in big bands …” His brother, who was studying at the Berklee College of Music in the mid 1970s, brought home records by Ellington, Coltrane and Hendrix, cementing a life-long love of musical diversity in the service of expert musicianship. “I am a reactive player,” he muses. “If I’m playing free music with someone, I react most naturally if the player is really good, as are McPhee and Duval.” The bassist’s background is just as varied. “Let me be clear,” he half-growls in a heavy Brooklyn accent. “I love music. I love all kinds of music, and I’ll play anything if it’s good, however it’s labeled and categorized.” Duval’s experience encompasses everything from classic rock to blue grass, and his work in jazz has found him recording with musicians as diverse as Mark Whitecage and Michael Jeffery Stevens, and they were all in the same band.

McPhee’s career is the most widely documented of the three, but a new facet comes with the recent release of Sound on Sound, a two-disc set of late 1960s solo recordings, some of which employ overdubbing. This less-often heard side of McPhee’s work tends toward the modernity of contemporary classical, and it adds another layer to the complexities underlying each solo he plays. “Sure,” he concedes, “I was always interested in experimental music, including what we will call modern classical for the sake of convenience, though those categories never made a lot of sense to me.” He is similarly dismissive of the American/European dichotomy that has dogged discussions of improvised music for the nearly fifty years of his involvement. “I draw liberally on both, and it really depends on the situation I’m in, but again, the categorizations leave a lot to be desired.” Seemingly in contradiction to the freedoms he has long fostered are the many melodies he plays in Trio X’s company, what might be called the group’s songbook. “He’s a very melodic player, especially with us,” states Rosen. “Our music allows him to go in that direction.” Duval agrees. “The first McPhee record I heard was one with violinist David Prentice. I really enjoyed that particular aspect of Joe’s work, and I thought it would be great to play with him along those lines.”

Given this amalgam of immersion, not to mention a large and rapidly growing catalog, (another box from the 2010 tour is in the works) the 2008 tour box set serves as an excellent focal point around which to examine this phase of the group’s all-inclusive aesthetic. The “So What” reference mentioned above is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, and Trio X’s approach leaves room for multiple musical genres to creep in. Of course, as is well known, Trio X also incorporates tunes from various genres and vintages of American music, but much less often discussed is the dynamic and rhetorical intrigue that occurs during whatever tune is receiving the Trio X treatment. We use vague terms such as “freedom” and “tradition” as catch-alls to describe the complexities that pervade the flow of a tune treated in non-standard fashion, but these are metaphors at best, evocative while remaining non-descriptive in any concrete fashion. One advantage of the two Trio X tour sets is that you can hear the tunes evolve from night to night, which affords a stunning glimpse into the band’s Protean brand of allusion. In 2006, we were treated to multiple versions of a spicy mixture of “My Funny Valentine” and the 1970s Edwin Star funk classic “War.” By the end of the tour, funk had become the overriding component of the mix, complete with slamming bass riff and shouted vocals; the fun, though, is in the way the various elements are brought in and out of play.

Sometimes, references take the form of a self-contained unit that is subject to variation. The old pop chestnut “Secret Love” was integral to the 2008 tour, appearing four times in the box. There is no real sense of a linear evolution, say from definite to free or the other way around, but each rendering is markedly different in mood and texture. The most overtly complex version comes from the Colgate University concert that opened the 2008 tour. The dynamic range is astonishing, beginning with McPhee’s tenor whispering the tune into existence, much as Doris Day did in 1951. Duval enters into the hushed mood. As Rosen’s crystalline cymbals and delicate brush filigree fade in, the tune begins to fragment around the changes over the gentlest swing possible. A gradual and organic crescendo turns the lope into a trot as McPhee plays with shards of the melody, shattering them to atoms before hurling them away. Rosen, now on sticks, jumps headlong into a vaguely Latin rhythm in doubletime, Duval only too eager to join in before all recedes again. By contrast, the tour’s final version only vaguely hints at the tune as McPhee’s serpentine melody winds its way forward. Its title on this date, “Secret Love Secret,” is entirely apt. Perhaps ironically, while the melodic references are heavily obscured, this is the most rhythmically unified version of the tour, maintaining an exuberant swing through its six minutes. It also maintains one key, whereas the others treat key, like rhythm, as a point of departure rather than a home base.

Then, there are those references that flit by, ephemeral, maybe only half-born. Ten minutes into the band’s 2008 Edgefest performance, captured on disc 2 of the set, Duval hints at Monk’s “Rhythm-a-ning,” but the others do not take him up on it. On the other hand, “Brown Skin Girl” is first referenced in the Colgate set, and it returns in many variations throughout the tour. More elusive but equally powerful are the various genres the trio can conjure and just as quickly abandon. Colgate’s opening improvisation, at first metrically free, morphs into a street-smart funk, laid down by Duval and Rosen, that reaches boiling point and is then gone.

“We never discuss anything,” McPhee states conclusively, “except maybe where we’re going to eat after the gig. The music flows naturally.” The others agree. “We’re storytellers,” states Rosen matter-of-factly, “Not to mention the fact that we listen to each other.” I have heard similar comments from groups like Mujician, but they did not reference popular melody and genre in the same way. Miles Davis’s groups from 1965-1975, and Wayne Shorter’s most recent band, might be the closest to Trio X’s dynamic music making. Rosen says that the group’s sound has deepened, and that orchestrational concerns have become richer.

In his understated way, he has articulated what lies at the heart of the bands aesthetic. Beyond the multiple layers of reference, beyond the constantly varied genre and stylistic concerns, each member is constantly listening and reacting. This may seem obvious, but I would suggest that despite what musicians might say about listening and building on what is heard, surprisingly few actually do it on a regular basis; this is the most glaring irony of all. Sporting an appellation connoting anonymity, the trio is actually one of the most stylistically unique and versatile units on the scene, and reactive listening has fostered its vision. Like those middle 1950s Blue Note records, building on bebop and just before “free jazz” exploded into focus, the group takes tradition and innovation into its huge stride.

Let one more musical exchange suffice, if possible, to encapsulate what is most captivating about the way this aggregate makes music. In Davenport, Iowa, toward the end of the 2008 tour, they finished the concert with “Goin’ Home.” It’s a Trio X standard, with them practically since their 1998 inception. At 3:35, McPhee finds a multiphonic on soprano and holds it, swelling the volume ever so slightly. Duval switches from single notes to powerful octaves as Rosen’s cymbals go from glitter to thunder. McPhee breaks into the high-intensity circular breathing and dense tone clouds for which he’s revered, Rosen and Duval supporting it with deep swing. By the time the wave has passed and the melody returns, several historical periods have been brought to bear. It is one of the most exciting two minutes of the tour and speaks volumes about the many roads these three friends have traveled, separately and together.

By Marc Medwin

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