by Ian Mann
November 01, 2023
The trio combine a strong sense of melody with an equally well developed sense of rhythm and the various musical flavours that they stir into the pot make for a very tasty dish indeed.
“Tales of Utopia”
(ACT Music ACT 9976-2)
Gadi Stern – piano, keyboards, David Michaeli – double bass, Matan Assayag – drums
Taking their name from the Hebrew word for “three” Shalosh is an Israeli piano trio formed in 2014 by childhood friends Gadi Stern (piano) and Matan Assayag (drums). In that same year Shalosh released its first album, “The Bell Garden”, which attracted considerable critical acclaim in Israel and further afield, with the band touring extensively in Europe, the US and Japan.
In 2016 original bassist David Benhorin was replaced by the current incumbent, David Michaeli. The new line up featured on the group’s second album “Rules of Oppression” (2017), a recording that enhanced the trio’s global reputation and led to further widespread international touring.
In addition to jazz the members of Shalosh have been influenced by other genres of music including rock, grunge, techno, classical and folk. The exciting nature of their live performances led to them also getting booked for rock festivals as they began to develop an audience beyond the usual jazz demographic. In 2018 they released the vinyl only live recording “Studio Konzert”.
Later in 2018 the trio signed to the prestigious German label ACT, for whom they have now released three albums, “Onwards and Upwards” (2019), “Broken Balance” (2020) and now “Tales of Utopia”. These recordings have consolidated the trio’s reputation and they continue to be a highly popular act on the live circuit, playing many prestigious venues and festivals.
Shalosh describe themselves as a leaderless trio and all their compositions are simply credited to Shalosh. The new album is a conceptual affair inspired by elements of Christian and Greek mythology, specifically the Old Testament and the Odyssey respectively. It charts the journey of a young hero into the ‘unknown’, with the ‘unknown’ representing both the external world and the inner self. The narrative of the hero’s quest is briefly outlined in the album liner notes. It is also reflected in the tune titles and in the music itself, but as the album is essentially an all instrumental affair there is plenty of scope for listeners to make their own interpretations.
The album was recorded ‘live in the studio’ in Tel Aviv in March 2023 with drummer Assayag commenting;
“For three or four hours we focussed on the music and formulated our Utopia. That way we could block out the external pressures. That’s the meaning behind the title. Our last album reflected the world outside, this one is about inner harmony”.
The album commences with “Tales of Utopia” itself, which immediately emphasises the democratic nature of the trio with Michaeli’s double bass taking the lead in the tune’s early stages. A strong sense of melody is also a characteristic of Shalosh’s music, something that becomes even more apparent as Stern takes over on piano. His theme statement and subsequent solo is followed by a more expansive solo from Michaeli that features some truly virtuoso bass playing. Then it’s back to Stern at the piano as Assayag’s crisp drum grooves drive the piece along and provide the necessary rhythmic momentum. This is exciting music that draws on elements of traditional folk melody but also reflects the inspiration of other contemporary piano trios such as The Bad Plus (an acknowledged influence) and ACT label mates E.S.T.
The fast moving, hard driving “Entrance to the Great City” is intended to represent the hero’s arrival in the metropolis where he is “deluged with new impressions”. Assayag’s martial drum rhythms set the pace, topped by Stern’s arresting piano melodies. Michaeli continues to be a significant presence and the arrangement also makes judicious use of electric keyboards.
Things quieten down with the suitably ethereal “King’s Dream Part 1”, which features some wonderfully lyrical playing from pianist Stern and particularly bassist Michaeli, whose melodic solo is a thing of beauty. The piece also features delicate and atmospheric electric keyboard colourations, plus the deft and economical drumming of Assayag.
“Views of Road in Crimson Red” emphasises the extraordinary rapport that the trio has developed over its many years of playing together. The level of the collective interplay is exceptional, but so too are the solos from both Michaeli and Stern, the latter deploying the sounds of dampened piano strings at one juncture. Stern’s dazzling piano solo is brilliantly supported by bass and drums, with Assayag a busy and dynamic presence behind the kit.
By way of contrast “Three Sisters” begins as a lovely ballad that conveys a real sense of yearning. Stern’s lyrical piano introduction evolves into a beautiful dialogue with Michaeli’s melodic bass. The addition of drums imparts the piece with a greater momentum but the overall focus remains very much on melody. The liner notes speak of “three sisters on an island who take care of the hero, their voices intertwining”. This “intertwining” is expressed in the tune’s more upbeat moments and the close interaction between the members of the trio.
The narrative also recounts that the king “receives some poor advice”. The piece titled “The Advisor” begins in moodily atmospheric fashion with the rich sound of Michaeli’s bowed bass, accompanied by Stern’s piano arpeggios and Assayag’s mallet rumbles and cymbal embellishments. It later bursts into a hard driving passage, propelled by bass and drums and embracing an element of wilful piano dissonance as Stern goes all Cecil Taylor on us, before the trio reel it all back in.
“Kings Dream Part II” then slows things back down again, with Stern’s gentle piano ruminations underscored by delicately brushed drums. But the peace and quiet doesn’t last as the music becomes more jagged and angular, with Assayag’s drums sometimes assuming the lead as part of a spiky dialogue with Stern’s piano. The closing section features a military style drum groove and an insistent piano motif.
The story tells us that the hero “has to find his way through a market alive with strange smells, colours and movement”. Stern’s florid piano introduction sets the scene, supported by Michaeli’s bowed bass. Eventually the music springs into vibrant life, with Michaeli’s plucked bass combining with Stern’s vigorous piano pounding and Assayag’s hard hitting drum grooves. The track fades out and sounds like part of a longer performance – it’s a shame that we couldn’t have heard it all!
The hero has to leave the metropolis, making a dramatic sunset exit. “Wave” depicts his escape by sea, with Assayag’s solo drum introduction approximating the rhythm of the waves. The watery imagery is also reflected in Stern’s rippling piano. Michaeli’s bass then establishes a more solid groove that represents the foundation for Stern’s more expansive piano soloing.
The album concludes on a celebratory note with the exuberant “Wedding Song”, inspired by Moroccan folk music and featuring the massed voices of a number of the trio’s friends – Tula Ben Ari, Raz Eitan, Rani Birenbaum, Matan Caspi, Yogev Shitrit, Ella Greenbaum, Eden Giat and Guy Dayan. It’s a wonderfully joyous way to end an excellent album.
I’d been aware of Shalosh’s existence for a while but this is the first time that I’ve actually listened to one of their albums. I have to say that I was hugely impressed with both the quality of the writing and the standard of the musicianship. The trio combine a strong sense of melody with an equally well developed sense of rhythm and the various musical flavours that they stir into the pot make for a very tasty dish indeed. This is music that stays true to the trio’s Israeli roots, but which is also capable of attracting a considerable international following. It’s music that is simultaneously accessible and sophisticated, very much a winning combination. It’s not really necessary to follow the story or to buy into the concept to enjoy the music. Ultimately it’s all about the quality of the trio’s melodies, and there are some great tunes here.
Shalosh are currently touring the album with dates across mainland Europe and in their native Israel. Unfortunately there are no UK dates, which is a pity as after hearing this album I would love to see the trio live.
Details of forthcoming tour dates can be found on the band’s website http://www.shalosh.net
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