John Bickerton Trio
Leo Lab / CD064
John Bickerton / piano, Matthew Heyner / bass, Rashid Bakr / drums
Mario Pavone Trio
Knitting Factory Records / KFR257
Mario Pavone / bass, Peter Madsen / piano, Matt Wilson / drums
Piano trios are one of the standard formats for testing out ideas or making statements in jazz and improvised music, just as the solo piano is for composers of new classical music. Its very standardised nature makes it transparent: it has a history, but it’s also something we accept automatically, leaving us free to stop worrying about whether the instrumentation really works and get down to the business of listening to the notes.
Both of these records are about notes, really, and they’re both about compositions, although Pavone’s more so than Bickerton’s. Bickerton’s trio play his own compositions, while Pavone’s play Thomas Chapin’s; the former often shoot off at free-improvised tangents, the former have harmonic structures which give each of the freer passages its own distinctive taste. Two approaches, then, to similar ideas.
Bickerton’s compositions are wonderful things, reminiscent of Mary Lou Williams’s, Monkish but in an updated way, bringing dissonance and that apparently awkward grace to the fore and letting swing transform into the pulse of free improvisation. “Stilts and Pirouettes” is impossibly catchy, and the theme of “Meeting after Dark” has a big pinch of Mal Waldron’s lovely, unsentimental balladry stirred into it before launching into a firework display. Heyner is a real powerhouse on the bass, a big, loud, thumping player and, although he sticks close to the pianist most of the time, he’s constantly contributing something interesting.
Bickerton’s examinations of the prepared piano don’t fare so well; they just seem pointlessly noisy, the notes blunted or rattling without great purpose, the whole thing becoming too bludgeoning to be effective. A shame, but it doesn’t happen too often, and even when it does his partners pick up the slack and keep your interest going. Bakr is a strange fish, taking a polyrhythmic approach to everything else, so that he sounds perfectly in time with himself and drifts in and out of phase with Bickerton and Heyner. That’s a great tactic, one which most free jazz drummers employ now and again, but Bakr makes a trademark of it. No complaints from this writer: when it’s done well, as it is here, it can sound like the most natural thing in the world.
The Bickerton Trio disc is full of verve and excitement. It’s a loud, even frenetic slice of jazz, but the leader’s compositions keep on surprising. There’s a dreadful tendency in free jazz for heads to be written in a who-cares manner, as if they were just launching pads for the solos, and the solos are, naturally, what we’re all interested in. Bickerton won’t have it, it seems: the tunes he writes have to be right, and their complex, sophisticated construction is always going to be rewarding.
If Bickerton’s compositions swing like hell even as the band are dissolving swing into the destructured rythms of improv, Mario Pavone’s trio swings hard in a much more traditional manner. Playing Chapin’s tunes can’t be any easier than playing Bickerton’s — they’re full of the weirdest little catches. Horrible as it is to mention Monk again in the context of piano trios, still, there’s a similarity which is hard to avoid. They sound simple enough, until you realise they’re not: they’re fiendishly complicated, but made from really very simple materials. Just as there’s a kind of reverse-logic to Monk tunes which makes them so counter-intuitive to play, so Chapin, in his more lushly Romantic way, has put some nasty little hooks into these pieces to catch out the unwary.
Pianist Madsen absolutely launches himself into these performances. He seems to love the tunes, and know them inside-out; he just presses the keys down and out comes this forceful, slick, whirling music. Make no mistake, this stuff is much, much tamer than what Bickerton’s trio plays, but Madsen’s energy, constrained as it is within Chapin’s structures, just boils to get out. And sometimes, as jazz groups often do, they abandon the changes and turn freestyle, becoming, briefly, as wild and firey in their own way as anyone this side of Cecil Taylor.
Wilson and Pavone do more than take care of business in the rhythm department. Although wedded firmly to bebop time, they have an enormous flexibility and they can loosen up the seams of Chapin’s compositions to the point where they seem to billow out, mis-shapen but airbourne. They’re an impressive trio indeed, and Chapin’s compositions could hardly have found a more sympathetic or a more imaginative home.
Two piano trios, then, and two different approaches to the medium. Bickerton playing his own compositions, doing something edgy and demanding, and pulling it off most of the time. On top form, the Bickerton trio’s album is triumphant, but there are low points, too, as there so often are in this kind of music. Pavone, on the other hand, plays it safer but gets consistently good results. Which to prefer is largely a matter of taste; both records are hugely enjoyable. Richard Cochrane