Triology: Saxophonists go hang flying…

Though far from a recent phenomenon, considering the relative prominence and success of Joshua Redman’s current saxophone-bass-drums trio exploits, the creativity evident in the trio known as Fly (with Mark Turner on saxophone, Jeff Ballard on drums, and Larry Grenadier on bass) on the wings of their first recording for ECM, as well as what seems to be a trickle (bordering on a trend?)  of younger saxophonists going the trio route, we sought out three to see what’s up.  Is this whole idea of going the hang-fly route, sans chording instrument (traditionally either piano or guitar), and working in the pure landscape of just bass & drum perhaps in response to these tight economic times?  Or is this move purely about what these musicians are hearing in their inner muse these days?


Tenor saxophonist J.D. Allen, whose latest recording on the Sunnyside label is Shine!, has been traveling this trio route for more than a minute; meanwhile tenor & soprano man Marcus Strickland took the challenge with his latest recording titled Idiosyncrasies for his own Strick Muzik label.  Alto & soprano saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, who has appeared in The Independent Ear previously for his joyous collaboration with the Gnawa master musicians of Morocco in June 2008, recently announced his new trio.  We quizzed all three on their motivations.

J.D. Allen’s latest


What prompted your decision to go this somewhat non-traditional saxophone trio route?  Was it a matter of economics at all, facing up to a special challenge, or what?


J.D.’s tenor speaks volumes


JD Allen: When I’m playing in this configuration (saxophone/bass/drums), I feel more connected to Black American Music.  The beat and the bass line seem to come into the forefront in a trio situation.  I never felt it was a non-traditional route playing with just the bass and drums, I actually felt like I was linking up more to Urban American music.  When I listen to James Brown or Mos Def, I am not listening for chord changes from a piano.  I am listening to their delivery (the flow), the beat (drums) and the bass lines (bass).  Of course harmony is still important, but in a trio setting — at least in my opinion — the conversation or the flow is KING.


Marcus Strickland’s first trio foray is Idiosyncrasies (Strick Muzik)


Marcus Strickland: I’ve always loved the sound of pianoless trio.  On my Twi-Life record Robert Glasper had an emergency and couldn’t make it to the first recording of the day, Wayne Shorter’s "Oriental Folk Song".  We recorded it in trio format and I liked how it sounded.  Also I had been doing a lot of trio gigs at a small Brooklyn joint Lucian Blue with Damion Reid [drums] and Vicente Archer [bass] (circa 2003-2004).  So I always wanted to do trio but wanted to wait for my writing to invite it.  Also after playing in a sextet format with the Twi-Life Group for a while I was craving a more sparse and interactive sound…


Jaleel Shaw has recently accepted the trio challenge…


Jaleel Shaw: I’ve always been a fan of the saxophone trio.  I actually started doing trio while I was still in Boston, MA studying at Berklee College of Music.  I used to have a trio gig every Sunday afternoon at a club called Wally’s.  Most of the gigs I’ve been booked for in NY lately only call for or have space for a trio.  A couple of years ago I played with my trio regularly at a small bar in the city called Louis 649 and lately I’ve been playing with my trio at the Bar Next Door.  It’s also a small bar that is booked by guitarist Peter Mazza.  I think economics may play a part in it too.  I’ve been called for a few gigs outside of the clubs mentioned where it wasn’t an issue of space, but it only paid enough to hire two other musicians.  I don’t mind at all though, I really dig the trio setting.


What adjustments have you had to make in your playing as a result of playing in a band environment with no chording instrument?


JD: I’ve had to learn how to use space as a note.


Marcus: Without piano my hearing becomes more acute — I’m more aware of the timbres and intervals between me and the bass.  As a result my concerns are more driven towards the overall sound of the group rather than how to react to the pianist’s comping.  Also my rhythmic sensibilities become more provacative in trio setting.  The more people in the group the more I find myself reacting as opposed to instigating.


Jaleel: I think a chordless trio gives me more harmonic and rhythmic freedom.  When a pianist comps behind me, he/she can sometimes step on my feet depending on how well that person knows my playing and/or is listening to what I’m trying to say musically.  If that pianist doesn’t hear or understand where I may be going rhythmically or harmonically, we may clash, which can create a very uncomfortable setting for me.  Trio also forces me to focus more on top of the harmony of the tune.  If I don’t know the changes, there’s no piano to give me the chords and the bassist can help me know where the form is if I get lost, but I have to know the harmony.  It’s a great challenge.


Who — if anyone — either historically or on the contemporary scene, inspired you to go this saxophone trio route?


JD: Albert Ayler, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, Sam Rivers, and Branford Marsalis.


Marcus: Sonny Rollins (especially Freedom Suite), Coltrane’s playing on "Blues to You," Branford Marsalis, Ornette Coleman’s pianoless encounters, and Eric Dolphy’s as well…


Jaleel: Historically — first and foremost — Sonny Rollins!  I wore out The Village Vanguard Sessions when I was in college.  Also John Coltrane, Joe Henderson, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Simmons, Branford Marsalis, and Kenny Garrett have all recorded groundbreaking trio records.  I also really like what Mark Turner, Myron Walden, Dick Oatts, JD Allen, and Chris Potter have done with the trio setting.  I haven’t heard all of Marcus Strickland’s record yet, but he let me hear some snippets of it before it came out and I really like what he’s doing too!

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