MICHAEL TOLAND: 3 ECM PIANO TRIOS—Collin Vallon, Benedikt Jahnel Trio, Julia Hülsmann Trio

Today at the BLURT Jazz Desk we have guest columnist and blogger Michael Toland weighing in on three recent piano trio releases from the venerable ECM label. Take it away, Prof. Toland. – Fred Mills & Bill Kopp


COLIN VALLON – Danse (3 out of 5 stars; released Jan. 27)

BENEDIKT JAHNEL TRIO – The Invariant (4 stars; released Feb. 17

JULIA HÜLSMANN TRIO – Sooner and Later (4 stars; released March 10)

(ECM) http://ecmrecords.com


The piano trio is one of the bedrock supports of jazz, a vehicle seemingly perfectly designed for the balance of composition and improvisation that drives the genre. Whether inadvertently or by design, ECM released in the first quarter a, ahem, trio of records by contemporary piano threesomes, all based in Europe, that deserve a close look.

Swiss keyboard-ticker Colin Vallon sounds like he’s putting a classical education to use on Danse, his fifth album. Joined by bassist Patrice Moret and drummer Julian Sartorious, the Lausanne native concentrates on minimalist melody, moving his digits toward accessible chord sequences and stripped-down licks rather than complicated fingerings or improvisatory flights of fancy. “Kid,” “Morn” and “Sisyphe” don’t push musical boundaries – they simply lay out Vallon’s tuneship as directly as possible. That doesn’t mean he’s crossed the line into new age dreck, however. Sartorious’ frisky cymbal work keeps the rhythms percolating, and the band shifts to more adventurous waters on the complexly structured “L’Onde” and the tensely stretched “Tinguely” (composed by Moret), even going for what sounds like free improv on the title track. While it would’ve been cool to hear the three push themselves a bit more in that vein, it’s also nice to hear a clearly skilled player this comfortable with the direct approach.

Berlin pianist Benedikt Jahnel takes a more traditionally jazz-oriented approach on his third LP The Invariant. Joined by telepathically swinging bassist Antonio Miguel and drummer Owen Howard, Jahnel takes liberties with his melodies, spiraling around them as often as playing them straight through. His nimble keyboard work enhances the tunes powering “Interpolation One” and “Further Consequences,” stopping just short of busy while still letting his technique shine. “Part of the Game” builds on a galloping bassline and almost conga-like drumming for a Latin-tinged, polyrhythmic exercise in making a song dance. “For the Encore” and “En passant” take the opposite tack, relaxing the tempo and arrangement to keep the musicians out of the tunes’ way. The nine-and-a-half minute “Mirrors” shows the trio at its most ambitious, performing a multi-part suite whose sections interlock so smoothly it sounds like it was written as it was being played. A preternaturally sympatico rhythm section and Jahnel’s compositional leadership make The Invariant a delight from start to finish.

As a follow-up to the remarkable quartet album A Clear Midnight: Kurt Weill and America, German pianist Julia Hülsmann (born in Bonn, based in Berlin) returns to the trio format for the first time in six years with Sooner and Later. Hülsmann is a more exploratory pianist than either Vallon or Jahnel – she likes to meander around inside her compositions, checking out the alleys, poking around in the corners and generally enjoying the feel of her own work. That doesn’t mean the tracks come off as unfocused or sloppy, however – “From Afar,” “Soon” and “J.J.” wander with purpose, boasting a playful and relaxed feel that comes from confidence in the durability of the compositions. Bassist Marc Muellbauer and drummer Heinrich Köbberling contribute pieces as well – the latter’s “You & You” and “Later” sound like the Vince Guaraldi Trio interpreting Pat Metheny tunes, while the former’s “The Poet (For Ali)” shimmers gently like the dawn peeking over the horizon. The trio also covers Radiohead’s “All I Need” with exquisite feel and taste. Throughout the focus stays on Hülsmann, whether she’s comping atmospheric chords or tapping out angular riffs that chop through the arrangements. Sooner and Later brings the Hülsmann Trio back home, and it’s like they never left.

DOWNLOAD: “L’Onde” (Vallon), “Mirrors” (Jahmel), “Soon” (Hulsmann)


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