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Tom Bancroft : Trio Red

First Hello To Last Goodbye


by Ian Mann

August 24, 2012


Trio Red succeeds brilliantly and deserves to become more than just a one off project. In the crowded world of the piano trio this album stands out from the pack.

Tom Bancroft; Trio Red

“First Hello To Last Goodbye”

(Interrupto Music IM003)

Drummer, composer and educator Tom Bancroft has been a leading figure on the vibrant Scottish jazz scene for a number of years. Brother of saxophonist Phil and singer Sophie he has been a member of Trio AAB (together with Phil) and of pianist Dave Milligan’s highly acclaimed trio as well as working as a sideman with other leading Scottish jazz musicians including pianist Chick Lyall, guitarist Kevin McKenzie and saxophonists Tommy Smith and Laura McDonald. Bancroft has also led his own big band Orchestro Interrupto and is a larger than life figure with a tremendous sense of fun, I once saw him play with Milligan at Cheltenham Jazz Festival and his drum feature was both brilliant and hilarious. These qualities have made him a popular educator who is able to strike up an easy rapport with children. For Bancroft an element of comedy is often part of his music making, as exemplified by his madcap duo with Italian guitarist Enzo Rocco.

Bancroft also ran the much loved and much missed Caber record label which released over thirty albums documenting the best of the Scottish jazz scene between 1998 and 2005. The albums were immaculately produced and packaged and for a short but glorious period it looked as if Caber may develop to become a kind of Caledonian ECM. I was a regular customer and the label’s eventual demise due to straitened economic circumstances was a blow not just to the Scottish jazz scene but British jazz as a whole.

But now Bancroft is back with the new Interrupto imprint and a fine trio record which teams him with pianist Tom Cawley from the group Curios (and also musical director for Peter Gabriel) and Norwegian bassist Per Zanussi. The music is a mix between the composed and the improvised with a couple of intriguing cover versions thrown into a typically eclectic Bancroft musical mix.

Supported by Creative Scotland the album was recorded over just three days of intense musical activity.  Bancroft’s comprehensive, informative and frequently amusing liner notes shed considerable light on the mechanics of the project. The two Toms had played together before but neither had met Zanussi prior to the recording. Bancroft set out to record the trio’s very first musical meetings, literally from the first note, in a series of improvisations which he subsequently named “the First Hellos”. Some of these were totally open, others had simple rules with one instrumentalist instructed to dictate the course of the piece. Recorded on the first day of the project these items are interspersed throughout the album alongside the more formal compositions with the two cover versions (which we’ll come to later) bookending the album.

The trio’s second day of work saw them rehearsing the compositions and arrangements before playing an evening gig at the Edinburgh Jazz Bar. On the third day they recorded the more formal pieces before heading off to play at Islay Jazz Festival. A tough schedule then but on the evidence of this recording a wholly rewarding one.

The album begins with the unlikely segue of Joan Armatrading’s “Opportunity” and Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman”. As Bancroft explains “I wanted to do a cover and also a mash-up of two tunes. I have always loved these two pieces and these two composers. I was playing around with one tune and the other one popped into my mind and the more I played with them the more they fitted together”. In the trio’s hands they’re heavily disguised but highly effective with Bancroft’s busily brushed grooves, Cawley’s dampened strings and Zanussi’s subtly assertive bass all playing key roles. The empathy between the three musicians is immediately apparent, a blend of musical adventurousness and good humour-“serious fun” as Van Der Graaf Generator’s Peter Hammill has described his own group’s music making. In any event it’s a fascinating start to a consistently intriguing album.

Bancroft originally wrote “Boy Meets Boy Meets Girl Meets Girl” for Band of Eden, a big band project he co-led with Laura McDonald. Weighing in at over nine minutes it’s by far the lengthiest track on the album and in this small group setting expands from Zanussi’s simple and melodic bass motif to encompass an empathic three way discussion between the three group members. There’s both lyricism and a gentle humour in the exchanges. The piece also includes a dazzling, often exuberant extended Cawley solo plus a more lyrical feature from Zanussi at the bass. Bancroft’s drumming is supportive and inventive throughout with the leader producing an impressive array of sounds, much as he does throughout the album,

“Quiet” represents the initial airing of the “First Hello” pieces.  The soft rumble of Bancroft’s hand drumming underscores the thoughtful, delicately lyrical phrases of Zanussi and Cawley. There’s a sense of openness and of everybody being on their toes and constantly thinking. The same receptiveness can be heard in the second “First Hellos” piece “The Hound Of The Dextervilles”, a dedication to the Bancroft family dog.

Bancroft has a particular fondness for the music of Rickie Lee Jones and the Anerican singer’s song “Bonfires” provided the inspiration for the tender, minimalist ballad “Don’t Break Your Heart (Like Rickie L.J.)”. Here played movingly and lyrically by the trio the piece was originally written for the female members of Band of Eden and is dedicated to Bancroft’s daughter Sophie. Bancroft may have acquired a reputation as an arch musical prankster but this lovely piece is a delightful demonstration of his more sensitive side.

“The Power Of Calm” is the first example of a “First Hello” improvised piece to which “rules” have been applied. Bassist Zanussi was given an element of control on this piece that seems to sum up reed man Tony Coe’s definition of free jazz “it is like walking along a beach looking around you until you find something beautiful and interesting. As a player and a listener you have to wait and listen”. There’s a sense of the search in this piece with the trio’s tentative probings suggesting that they’re very happy to be on this musical beach in the first place. There’s also a profound sense of calm as, true to Coe’s dictum, they find something both beautiful and interesting, a mutual discovery that is shaped but never dominated by Zanussi.

After the zen like tranquility of the previous piece the composition “Fukurik (oops)” comes as a total contrast, a riff and groove based piece that owes something to contemporary piano trio such as e.s.t. and The Bad Plus. Bancroft has a keen interest in US politics “anyone who knows that scene will know who this tune is for” he says. My interest in politics, British or American, is less pronounced but I think I’ve got a pretty good idea who he means, why the rather coy “oops” though?

“Ruadhangus”, a dedication to Bancroft’s young nephew and his friend is a “First Hello” improvisation with Bancroft himself in the decision maker’s role and leading from the drums. It’s not as boisterous as one might expect but does have a certain child like charm. Likewise the following “Scallop Gallop”, another playful improvisation, this time with Cawley as the guide.

Bancroft combines politics with humour with “The Mole Of History Takes A Bow (And Trips)”, a rumbustious piece that owes something to the style of Neil Cowley and incorporates a rollicking Bancroft drum solo. You’ll need to read Bancroft’s liner notes for the full story behind the title, it all gets rather involved.

The darkly brooding “The Locksmith” represents another piece in the series of group improvisations. It is very different in feel to its predecessors with Zanussi’s eerily bowed bass and Bancroft’s atmospheric use of cymbals particularly notable. The title refers to an incident when Zanussi locked himself out of his hotel room and unsuccessfully attempted to open the door by sticking his bow through the letterbox and attempting to release the catch.

It is hard to believe that “Frankentrance” is also entirely improvised. At nearly seven minutes this is the longest of the “First Hello” pieces and almost seems to have the structure of a composition. It’s a good example of just how instinctive the rapport between the members of Trio Red is, a true meeting of equals. The piece is named for Frank Birnie, a former trad jazz drummer, larger than life character and a habitué of Bancroft’s local pub.

The ballad “Linda & Crawford’s Theme” was written by Bancroft for the tour his Big Band undertook with American pianist Geri Allen in 2004. In trio form it allows Cawley the opportunity to stretch out and there’s also a deeply lyrical bass solo from Zanussi.

The album closes with the trio’s version of Jeff Buckley’s “The Last Goodbye”. Bancroft was a fan of the late singer but to his chagrin never got to see him perform live. It’s the kind of probing but affectionate pop/rock cover that you might expect from a Brad Mehldau group. Cawley embellishes the melody but never pulls it too far out of shape, Zanussi adds a tasteful bass solo and the whole thing builds to an anthemic climax on the back of Bancroft’s increasingly energetic grooves. The two live performances of the piece at Edinburgh and Islay saw die hard Buckley fans expressing their approval.

The critical reaction to the Trio Red album seems to be largely favourable and rightly so. Bancroft’s mix of spontaneity and more considered composition is an effective mix and the album is well programmed with the two strands complementing each other well. The emotional and dynamic ranges are impressive too, there is both humour and pathos, delicate impressionism to full on pounding. And of course the playing is terrific, I’m a long term fan of Cawley from his work with Acoustic Ladyland and Curios and Zanussi has proved to be an exciting new discovery, apparently he was a late replacement for one his compatriots, what an inspired substitution, serendipity at work perhaps. He’s a brilliant player with a full round tone and a remarkable improviser’s instinct.
Bancroft himself is a revelation, conjuring a wide array of sounds from his kit and playing convincingly (and where appropriate with great sensitivity) across a wide range of styles throughout the album. Trio Red succeeds brilliantly and deserves to become more than just a one off project. On this evidence and on the strength of the reaction thus far there’s every justification to suspect that this may become a reasonably regular working collaboration. In the crowded world of the piano trio this album stands out from the pack. 


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