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John Law Trio

Live: Kings Arms, Abergavenny, 31/05/2009


by Ian Mann

June 02, 2009


Ian Mann watches the trio in concert and takes a look at their new album "Congregation-The Art Of Sound Volume 4"

John Law Trio, Kings Arms, Abergavenny, 31/05/2009

Pianist John Law has featured on the UK scene for quite some time now but without perhaps quite getting the attention his undoubted talent deserves. In recent times the focus of his activity has been his ” The Art Of Sound” series of recordings for the consistently interesting independent 33 Records.

The initial album in the series was released in 2007 and teamed Law with his current working trio of Sam Burgess (bass) and Asaf Sirkis (drums) for the first time. This was to prove a fruitful collaboration and resulted in an album of grace and beauty, consisting mainly of ballads and with the emphasis very much on the purity of the sound. Volumes Two (“the Ghost In The Oak”) and Three (“Chorale”) were strictly solo piano performances with the trio reconvening for Volume 4, the recently issued “Congregation”.

This latest album sees Law and his colleagues adopting a more “hard edged”, groove based sound that owes something to innovators like E.S.T. “Congregation” is a more extrovert album than it’s predecessor and even includes the judicious use of electronics and other effects. One tune, “Method In My Madness” was initially written for Volume 1 but was eventually omitted as it failed to fit in with the overall aesthetic of that album.

Law brought his trio to Black Mountain Jazz’s Abergavenny HQ as part of a Jazz Services sponsored tour to promote the “Congregation” album. Unfortunately a hand injury sustained by Asaf Sirkis in a kitchen accident (apparently he was slicing an avocado and ended up damaging his tendons with a knife) meant that he was unable to appear. Everyone here at the Jazzmann wishes Asaf a speedy recovery. Dave Ohm stepped brilliantly into the breach alongside Law and Burgess.

Drawing on material drawn from both trio albums in the Art of Sound series and beyond the hastily assembled line up commenced with ” The Ghost In The Oak”, the atmospheric opening track on the “Congregation” album. After Law’s solo piano introduction Burgess’ bowed bass and Ohm’s delicately brushed cymbals entered the equation to accompany the leader as the piece slowly unfolded. The tune exhibited many of the melodic virtues of Volume One with Law’s piano playing particularly worthy of praise.

In due course the trio segued into “Blue Sky Blue” from Volume One, a more groove oriented piece, perhaps the only track from the first record that wouldn’t be out of place on “Congregation”. Ohm seemed visibly more confident here and there was a dexterous, resonant solo from Burgess, a player with a huge tone allied to a strong melodic sensibility and great technical skill. As he had demonstrated previously on “Ghost” he is also an extremely accomplished arco player who also plays with Tom Cawley’s Curios, the Gwyneth Herbert Band and numerous others.

Besides playing the Kings’ resident grand Law had also brought his own electric piano to the gig and alternated between the two over the course of the evening, sometimes to the consternation of his bassist. “Insistence” saw Law seated at the electric to produce a kind of sly, knotty funk supported by the flexible grooves of his colleagues. Following a typically agile Burgess bass solo Law even deployed some prepared piano techniques and made judicious use of a lap top secreted away by the side of the piano. Interesting stuff.

The beautiful ballad “Look Into My Eyes” from Volume One contains one of Law’s most arresting melodies and again featured Burgess as a soloist. Perhaps the title alludes to it’s hypnotic effect.

To close the first half “Bo Peep” from “Congregation” featured Law on the electric again on a restlessly urgent blues based tune that included a number of breaks for drummer Ohm. Considering that he had never played these tunes prior to a half hour soundcheck cum rehearsal before the gig Ohm rose to the challenge magnificently. His sympathetic, colourful drumming added much to the music and the overall success of the evening.

The second half began in storming style with the title track from “Congregation” with Law on electric piano as Burgess and Ohm slammed out some rock rhythms. It instantly reminded me of the Neil Cowley Trio until Burgess’ bowed solo which veered closer to E.S.T. Speaking to Law afterwards I spoke of the Cowley influence but Law said he had hardly listened to him. As so often in jazz this seemed to be a case of two musicians arriving at the same point from wholly different directions.  He (Law) acknowledged his love of E.S.T. and also referenced Brad Mehldau-the “Art Of Sound” generic title is perhaps a tipping of the hat in homage of the American. Tom Cawley too is a favourite with Burgess providing a common link between the two pianists. “Watching,Waiting” from the new album is actually dedicated to Cawley. In any event tonight’s trio really seemed to enjoy romping through “Congregation”, easily the most extrovert tune in the Law repertoire.

“Trap Clap” also from “Congregation” was here introduced by Burgess’ solo bass and featured Law switching between acoustic and electric pianos, at one time dampening the strings of the former and also once again making use of electronic effects. Like many of the tunes on the current album a wry humour was in evidence. Law is clearly a well read and intelligent man and proved to be an engaging interlocutor between tunes.

The stirring ballad “Chorale” closes “Congregation” and also features as the title track of one of Law’s solo piano works. Initially introduced here by solo piano the piece has a distinct gospel feel about it. The piece later became something of a feature for Burgess, his lyrical, melodic playing often taking place near the bridge of the instrument in an impressive display of both feeling and technique.

To close the trio played a heavily modified version of the standard “Autumn Leaves”, imbuing the piece with a wholly contemporary groove. This was the kind of radical makeover Mehldau might approve of with Law shifting between pianos but mainly concentrating on the electric. Both Burgess and Ohm were featured as soloists, the drummer sometimes sparring with Law.

The small but enthusiastic crowd called the trio back for an encore, the rhapsodic “The Journey Home” which was sometimes reminiscent of a Pat Metheny tune for sheer melodic quality. Burgess turned in what was probably his finest solo of the night, his rich, resonant tones subtly supported by Ohm’s tasteful brushwork. As for the leader his playing was characteristically excellent. Law is a player of huge technical ability but his attractive, melodic tunes are also capable of considerable emotional impact.

Both Law’s “Art Of Sound” trio albums are worth seeking out and the contrast between them makes each indispensable. The first is a consistently engaging collection of beautiful tunes immaculately played with the more recent release pushing the envelope rather more as Law experiments with grooves, electronica and other modern developments in the context of the piano trio. These are two sides of the same coin and both are thoroughly recommended. I’ve owned Volume One as a fan for some time and have been delighted by the new Volume Four. I’ve not heard the solo piano discs or any of law’s early output but strongly suspect that these will also be well worthy of investigation.

All fans of contemporary jazz piano are urged to check out John Law. If you enjoy E.S.T., Mehldau, Jarrett, John Taylor, Cawley and Cowley or the two Phronesis albums you should love this. The Art Of Sound Trio deserves to be ranked among the best in the UK.

Finally don’t forget the next Black Mountain Jazz event-Azhaar Saffar and Sirius B on June 14th 2009.

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