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by Ian Mann

March 17, 2011


On the evidence of this recording this quietly innovative piano trio deserve to be ranked up there among the world's finest.

Colin Vallon Trio


(ECM 2185 274 9350)

Even at this late stage the Swiss born pianist Colin Vallon, one of a crop of recent ECM new signings, manages to bring something new and individualistic to the much visited format of the piano trio.

Now aged thirty Vallon has been leading his own groups since 1999. Bassist Patrice Moret and drummer Samuel Rohrer, also both Swiss, joined him in 2004 and the trio has evolved into a democratic and interactive unit with all three contributing tunes to an all original programme on
this, their ECM début.

Vallon’s brooding good looks suggest an exotic ancestry and his Turkish heritage is expressed in a love of the folk music of Turkey, the Balkans and beyond. This trio’s brand of piano jazz is far removed from the American swing and bebop traditions but is also distanced from the European classical romanticism that imbues so much contemporary European piano jazz, including much of that to be found elsewhere on ECM. At times the Vallon trio’s folk leanings lend their music an earthy, percussive feel with Vallon claiming that he is more influenced by singers than by fellow pianists. But mostly they display a remarkable degree of restraint and delicacy with some of the pieces almost appearing to be played in slow motion. It all makes for refreshing and very interesting listening with a high degree of compatibility between the three protagonists. 

The album title meaning “The Journey” or “The Path” came from the suggestion of Albanian folk singer Elina Duni. Vallon and Moret play in her quartet and between them the trio have worked with an impressive array of jazz and world artists among them Uri Caine, Ellery Eskelin, Charles Gayle, Kenny Wheeler, Tom Harrell and Kurt Rosenwinkel. 

The album begins with Moret’s piece “Telepathy”, an appropriate title that derives its inspiration from sources as diverse as Radiohead and Wayne Shorter. Thom Yorke’s vocal phrasing and Shorter’s refusal to embrace cliché are the main influences here and the piece unfolds slowly and organically in a genuine trio performance. Rohrer’s highly detailed but subtly propulsive drumming is a constant delight as Vallon concentrates on empathic chording and group interaction rather than obvious soloing. It’s an approach that owes much to Shorter’s methods and with Moret anchoring it all together the trio succeed brilliantly.

Vallon’s title tune was inspired partly by a Turkish piece written by Erkan Ogur and partly by a European train journey as the dawn was breaking. Again the piece grows organically, slowly blossoming out of Vallon’s opening piano arpeggios. More overtly romantic and melodic than its immediate predecessor it’s another superb trio performance that once again plays to the trio’s strengths. Vallon is restrained but authoritative, Rorer delicate and with a fine eye for detail and Moret again the grounding influence.

“Home” takes the trio’s concept of restraint a stage further. It’s a slow breathing ballad that embraces an air of meditative stillness with Vallon’s delicate piano chording delicately embellished by Rohrer’s filigree brushwork. 

The drummer’s own “Polygonia” begins in similar fashion with a kind of prelude before shifting to something more rhythmically orientated. As Rohrer points out to Steve Lake in the album’s sleeve notes the piece is rhythmically ambiguous, “it’s written in 5 but could be played in 4” he explains. Whatever the technicalities it’s still fascinating listening, subtly shifting in mood and timbre and with an almost telepathic understanding between the members of the trio.

Vallon’s “Eyjafjallajokull” is inspired by the Icelandic volcano that caused such widespread travel chaos in 2010 with many touring jazz musicians among those effected. It’s less obviously “volcanic” than the title suggests. Instead Vallon captures events below the surface, subterranean stirrings, the slow bubbling of the magma, the faint air of dread and foreboding about what’s going to happen next.

“Meral” derives its title from the name of Vallon’s Turkish grandmother who passed away in 2009. Vallon wrote the piece with Turkish folk music in mind and it contains one of his most attractive and accessible melodies. It’s a fitting tribute to a much loved family member.

The following “Iskar” is based on “Shope Shope” by the Bulgarian folk composer Stefan Mutafchiev. Essentially it’s a group improvisation (the writing credit is given to all three musicians) with the trio de-constructing Mutafchiev’s tune in almost abstract fashion. Shadowy high register arco bass, dampened piano strings and eerie cymbal scrapings combine to create a vaguely unsettling atmosphere from which Vallon’s piano solo emerges. It’s based on the singing of Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares rather than any obvious jazz source.

Rohrer’s “Noreia” is based around an insistent rhythmic vamp with Vallon improvising lyrically above. It’s named after a vanished ancient city in the eastern Alps and the melody and rhythm eventually decay into a kind of gentle abstraction, a reflection perhaps of the slow decline of the city of the title.

“Rruga,var” offers a more rhythmic variation on the title track and includes a deeply resonant bass solo from Moret, the only one on the album.

Moret’s piece “Fjord” possesses the kind of icy beauty suggested by the title. It’s almost minimalist and is punctuated by brief moments of solo brush work from the excellent Rohrer. He’s a painterly drummer in the style of ECM veterans Paul Motian and Jon Christensen.

And it’s Rohrer’s “Epilog” that closes the album, slowly unfolding from Moret’s unaccompanied bass introduction. It’s a beautiful way to close the album with the group hallmarks of taste, restraint and mutual interdependency all readily apparent.

“Rruga” is a frequently beautiful album, based around relatively simple melodic ideas and with the details painstakingly stitched in. Predominately quiet and lyrical it fits perfectly into the ECM aesthetic and is likely to have particular appeal to admirers of Tord Gustavsen.

But there is more to “Rruga” than first meets the eye or ear. There are virtually no bass or drum solos, certainly not in the conventional jazz sense, which is very unusual even for the most interactive of contemporary piano trios. This ensures that the Vallon Trio are almost uniquely democratic, they serve the music and the overall atmosphere above all else. Group conversation and mood building is what this trio does best, it’s a selfless approach that is in part inspired by the latter day methods of Wayne Shorter’s Quartet and Shorter’s refusal to conform to the straitjacket of the heads/solo/heads format. There is no conventional jazz soloing on “Rruga”, it’s all about the overall picture. I’m surprised they haven’t picked a suitably modish band name to reflect the democratic nature of the group.

The Vallon Trio have created a lovely series of mini tone poems. The fact that many of these derive their inspiration from folk forms only adds to the interest. It’s an approach that breathes new life into the piano trio format even at this advanced stage of the game. On the evidence of this recording this quietly innovative piano trio deserve to be ranked up there among the world’s finest. 

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