by Ian Mann
November 07, 2022
"An intense, exciting and rewarding musical experience for both the audience & the performers". Guest contributor Marc Edwards enjoys the music of this drummer-less trio led by Tommaso Starace (sax).
The Power of Three, Progress Theatre, Reading, Friday 21 October 2022
Tommaso Starace, alto sax | Jim Watson keyboard | Dave Chamberlain acoustic bass
‘The Power of Three’ – an intense, exciting and rewarding musical experience for both JiR audience and performers
7:30 pm: After Jazz in Reading MC Bob’s warm and witty welcome to all, The Power of Three leapt straight into the show, with no breaks at all until two full numbers had been played:
“This Here” (Bobby Timmons)
A skittish theme. The solidity and affirming piano chords immediately reminded me of the Billy Taylor theme Film ‘67– but here in a ¾ measure and with a bluesy bass mode. Balance was immaculate between all three players, taking rapid descending figures, nervy cross rhythms, arriving at a long and busy sax solo to a “Yes!” from the audience…Starace disappears through a stage door, the first of a several discreet exits and magical re-entries throughout the evening, as he bobbed in and out of view in between his definitive musical declarations…
Now Jim Watson on piano, filling with both harmony and counterpoints from the start, fingers flying over his pillar-box red Nord 300 – virtually a full band in itself, with Dave Chamberlain on bass providing a robust platform and powerful rhythmical argument through rapid statements, the duet continued ‘at pace’ with fat chords, fading down to leave bass alone, not simply to give us loads of rapid-fire, but special effects such as ‘hand-wipes’ across the strings added wit and surprise to an already awesome introduction. Solo from Tommaso, chiming in with a brief well-known theme…and a sudden, briefly discordant end to this astonishing opening number!
Warm applause then segue into…
“Del Sasser” (Cannonball Adderley)
Lyrical, but quick opening with boogey-style Q&A between keyboard and bass. Many notes at a rate of knots, giving an impression of wordless lyrics.
Piano and bass gave us a story, then the sudden re-entry of Starace, adding hurtling runs on sax, and with a hint of passing fire siren…! Remaining urgent and restless, here an abrupt end to the sax solo, but resumption of more enigmatic piano and fast bass conversations, with a flavour of bebop in the mix.
After even more excited applause, Starace re-appears, to say a few words… about the two pieces we’ve just heard, then briefly to announce the group’s new album.
“The Power of Three” was recorded as a ‘live’ performance, in a real acoustic with no mixing, and no headphones used by the players. (Possibly a celebration of the return of live music and a product of those days in lockdown?)
After an introduction, the great Duke Ellington was mentioned regarding this famous title, performed by so many bands…
Lovely dark moods and images from the very opening. Exotic modes suggesting Middle Eastern origin, but with celebrations of those mysterious ‘microtonic’ melodic lines in glissando, polychromatic saxophone phrases. Piano gives us spice-laden harmonies and phrasing, tempo rising and bass (now bowed , not plucked for the first time) echoing the modal colours of this music with beautiful, soulful high notes, way up the fingerboard creating an especially emotive point. Always, camels seemed to be moving forward in this beautiful piece, treading gently on the lowest bass tones, with those colours of the scene now super-exciting through off-beats and syncopation, high and ethereal from sax, mixing jagged and unexpected passages (before Tommaso disappears stage left!). Keyboard: Latin, near-Cuban references with restless lines, the motions disturbed with cross-rhythms – a glissando wail as sax re-enters, piano; the bass tapering towards a glorious ending.
“Passport” (Charlie Parker)
This went quickly on its way, with low sax, walking bass, tight and complex piano chords. A cheeky tune from sax, full, low discords from piano. Tommaso physically came and went, like a Punch and Judy show. That ‘Rolls-Royce’ bass sound, edgy at this stage, with sax flying flippantly overhead, always dancing. Bass became more expressive, but reflected the innate mischief of the soloist.
The trio combined. Bass pizzicato, a light touch, showing ringing, classical clarity, always witty and playful, adding a ‘slap’ sound to a few bars of his articulation repertoire. Luscious orchestral tone, combining with stunningly accurate rapid fingering, the tuning remaining impeccable. A player whose instrument just had to be a deeply ingrained part of his musical language. Sheer quality!
The audience was quickly alerted after these musings, led by the astonishing speed and drive of Tommaso, as fresh musical conversations unfolded, Q&A between the instrumental voices, with jokes and quotes from various sources flying past. Always cheeky and cheerful, but finely-honed. Striding bass from DC over rich, tight chords and flying trapeze from JW. Imaginative, utterly committed playing.
Simply nothing missing.
“Autumn in New York” (Sam Jones)
Self-deprecating tone of this music, sweet and slow relief, heartfelt and soulful melody with ‘gaps’ between. Gentle solo piano chords… lighting a clear picture via harmonies and flowing arpeggios to phrases barely heard, but here over the strong bass; the sounds and city lights, dreamy impressions – suddenly, sax jumps in!
Conversational, sleazy shapes, then fond memories on this journey…in a flash, sax has vanished again. Beautiful slow, low and fluid bass, almost through an alcoholic haze, sax gives big, airy phrases, reflected in rippling waters from piano…Always that subterranean bass; all ends wistfully…
“Brazilian Like” (Michel Petrucciani)
And the Latin rhythms; characteristic melancholy, and mournful memories again. And those exotic, rolling rhythms on a bossa nova feel and then the ethereal tone of sax
The streets of Paris – optimism creeps in, excitement builds, colourful rich chords, delicious moments, against a displaced bass line and now chatter of the sax solo.
Then: surely not? A police siren seems to be heard from glissando sax (who then dives out of sight…) Piano and bass stick around to reflect, with sweet, dark bass in fluid phrases again. The magic mystery of piano’s fingers, bundles of notes as though in chunks, and…
More urgency is felt, darker and gentler, bass over broken chords. A song, jumpy and expansive from pizzicato bass, now in 3/4 – or is it 6/8 time?
Sax seamlessly returns, alluding to earlier, lonely melancholy.
A resolution: ‘things are not so bad?’
Cross rhythms as things cool down – and the moment passes.
With the next two tunes ‘If I should lose you’ (Ralph Ranger) and ‘Four’ (Miles Davis), a swing rhythm emerges – from this drum-free trio!
Distinctly swing rhythm 4-in-a-bar from bass and piano, sax flying by. Rich, tight chords underwritten by stride bass line, sax above, wild and untamed. Predominantly minor chords, a relentless pulse step, before sax vanishes… Undeterred, keyboard and stride bass carry the show…before the side-drama of sax exits and re-entries continues; Piano crossing the rhythmic path, more striding bass, a lengthy duet, with ripe and rhythmical piano, with trilled octaves leaves yet another up-tempo spectacular hanging in the air to a rapturous Progress Theatre.
“Segment” (Charlie Parker)
This next piece is played so fast, no normal musician could possibly keep up, but these guys certainly do: whirling phrases (Sax Punch and Judy!) piano and bass soloists remain on stage like figures a mad race, lurching, rapid syncopations testing our sense of metre beyond comprehension.
(Unusually, prestissimo participatory audience clapping was encouraged here, but some of us could only get close). And all the while, Tommaso, bobbing in and out of the left doorway; was he making up for the lack of a drum ‘driver’ by adding a splash of bandleader direction? Bass takes over, standing alone, his fluid ‘near-voice’ sound and complete control taking us into a very brief finale.
“Nica’s Dream” (Horace Silver)
After such intense concentration, this theme begins with a glorious saxophonic exposition, bass joins, nimble and in the highest register of this mighty instrument; beautiful piano work, sax returns with a dotted rhythm, fast tempo, with speedy keyboard in support, a sense of ‘no time to waste’ in the air. Here barely-perceptible musical jokes, maybe quotes from other numbers, a be-bop style, with dashing energy propelling all.
The sense and feel of the tightest pulse was felt, in the face of complex express rhythms, brilliantly controlled by Power of Three. In the midst of this driving momentum, glimpses of ‘the circus’ and clown-like fragments. We were all heading somewhere, at breakneck speed! Chord conviction and near-classical influences were there, ultimately with a satisfying ‘stride bass’ security.
Sax and in the centre the keyboard then seemed to be held back by the bass with astonishing skill, almost imperceptibly, to quote the original theme, with sax and bass united, the trio performing as one whole.
Nearing the end…
Then the penultimate piece by Horace Silver
Here a sax solo, stating a familiar theme; joined by stride bass and piano as ever, the harmonic heart of this larger-than-life trio.
(Exit sax soloist…) A crazy chasing duet; piano both hands playing in unison, presenting rapid chord changes…bass delivers high-speed patterns via nimble pizzicato; sax seems to have reappeared, for duple and triple measures, lightly woven…then, a surprisingly sudden end!
Power of Three deserved to be tired, but there was no indication…
“Work Song” (Nat Adderley) – Encore/Finale.
There was a ‘farewell’ from Tommaso Starace about the Adderley brothers, and the origin of this traditional ‘chain gang’ chant used by slaves in another era …
The ‘call and response’ character is clear. Wonderfully dark, sad tones; piano and bass make a declamatory call, and a sudden fast four-in-a-bar from Fat and fruity chords, sax runs and fills, hard to see how they effortlessly hang together. Bowed bass, trills and a further, startling exhibition of the Power of Three’s control of pulse, key, chords, timing…until a split chord before a solid recap of where they began, no holds barred; a dark reminder, in spite of the massive energy on show tonight, of the tragic suffering of so many, many others, not so very long ago.
Tommaso Starace tells us he’s soon to leave for a warmer, drier place… I’m sure his fellow musicians will try to persuade him otherwise. This is a closely-bonded and indeed powerful trio oozing with chemistry, and as MC of the evening Bob so eloquently said to an appreciative audience: “Where have these three been, all my life?”
For my heroes at Jazz in Reading
31st October 2022
Many thanks, Marc, for a terrific review – from the Jazz in Reading team.
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