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The Gentle War


by Ian Mann

January 27, 2011


If "Variations" established Trichotomy as one of the world's leading contemporary jazz piano trios then "The Gentle War" consolidates that position.


“The Gentle War”

(Naim Jazz naimcd156)

The Australian piano trio Trichotomy made a considerable impression on the international stage in 2010 with the release of their album “Variations”, also on the Naim Jazz label. Two previous Australia only releases had garnered little international attention but “Variations” gave notice to the world at large of just how accomplished a group Trichotomy had become during their ten years of existence.

The Queensland based trio first met at music college and were initially inspired by fellow Australians, The Necks. They have since absorbed a whole range of other influences including the regularly cited E.S.T., Tord Gustavsen and The Bad Plus, but pianist Sean Foran’s spell in England at Leeds College of Music added some UK names to that list including John Taylor, Neil Cowley and Acoustic Ladyland. The result is a finely honed and increasingly distinctive group sound that has seen the trio deservedly attracting the plaudits of the critics.

On “Variations” Foran shared the writing duties pretty much equally with the trio’s drummer John Parker. This time around the pianist takes the lion’s share of the writing credits contributing six tunes to Parker’s two. However Trichotomy is very much about group interaction with double bassist Pat Marchisella also making a substantial contribution to the overall band sound. If “Variations” established Trichotomy as one of the world’s leading contemporary jazz piano trios then “The Gentle War” consolidates that position. It’s a more focussed record than its excellent predecessor with the emphasis firmly on the sound of the core trio. “Variations” featured several guest appearances by horn and string players, this time Foran, Parker and Marchisella are on their own and clearly relishing it. 

In early 2010 Trichotomy toured the UK in support of “Variations” and I witnessed their performance at Stratford upon Avon, a short review of that show appears elsewhere on this site.
Although most of the material was drawn from the then current album a couple of tunes from this new release, Foran’s “Blues For A Space” and Parker’s “Cute”, were already in the set list and hinted at great things to come on the next record. “The Gentle War” doesn’t disappoint. 

The new album kicks off with Forlan’s “Chase” which maintains an almost pop sensibility among the choppy, shifting time signatures. As if to emphasise the democratic nature of the group Marchisella takes the first solo, his tone huge and elastic. Following a sparkling solo from Foran the bassist returns to prominence as he engages in an intriguing dialogue with drummer Parker. It’s this kind of interaction that makes Trichotomy such an exciting proposition.

Like much of Trichotomy’s work “Wrestle” covers an impressive dynamic range as the trio explore an initially simple melody and effectively wrestle with it, twisting it out of shape and allowing each instrument brief spells of dominance in a consistently engaging three way discussion. The details in Parker’s drumming are particularly effective but overall this is a superb trio performance combining accessibility with just the right amount of improvisatory gristle.

Foran’s “Blues For A Space”, a dedication to his student days in Leeds, is more straightforwardly beautiful, almost minimalistic, and perhaps owes something to Gustavsen and the whole ECM aesthetic. Indeed there’s an almost hymnal quality to the music. The conversation between the instruments is almost conducted in a whisper with Parker’s delicate percussion shadings and Marchisella’s gently resonant bass the perfect foil for the deeply meditative qualities of Foran’s playing.

Title track “The Gentle War” opens with shuffling E.S.T. inspired grooves courtesy of Parker’s drums followed by a brief episode of dark and sinister solo bass. Trichotomy are capable of shifting from one dynamic to another in an instant and this episodic piece unfolds constantly, moving between moods and tempos but without ever fully losing that underlying groove.

Grooves are also important on Parker’s “Cute”, a dedication to his young son that is as playful as the title suggests. However it’s not all wall to wall charm,the piece is punctuated by belligerent squalls, reflective, perhaps, of infant fits of temper. If we’re playing “spot the influence” I’d say there was something of Neil Cowley’s approach here in the use of playful, percussive piano motifs and even the way Parker draws on domestic life as a source of inspiration. 

Foran’s own “Sync” is cut from similar cloth, building from Parker’s opening drum passage. It’s perhaps more akin to The Bad Plus and explores some complex time signatures and rhythms with some thunderous left hand figures from Foran. However I can’t escape the feeling that it’s all a bit too busy and clever for its own good and for me it’s the least distinguished cut on the album.

Parker’s “Shut Up” rails at the banalities of reality TV. Here the band add some distortion to the bass sound and exhibit an almost punk like intensity, think The Bad Plus meets Acoustic Ladyland.

After this triple salvo of shorter, more direct pieces the trio end the album in beautiful fashion with Foran’s enigmatic “Not According To Plan”, a slow burner of a piece with a distinct cinematic quality and some characteristically excellent interplay between the members of the trio.

“The Gentle War” is a worthy follow up to “Variations” and Trichotomy are due back in the UK in February 2011 to tour the new album. The full schedule has already been published in our news pages. I intend to catch the group’s performance at Café Jazz in Cardiff where Foran will have use of the venue’s grand piano (last time I saw the band he was forced to play an electric keyboard) and to report on it for this site.

The best moments on “The Gentle War” come when the trio are at their most interactive with genuine and equal dialogue occurring between the musicians. It’s essential they don’t lose these qualities in the pursuit of greater accessibility. At the moment they strike a good balance between the written and the improvised and and the clarity of the mix by Brent Sigmeth, who has also worked with The Bad Plus, enhances the conversation between the instruments. There’s a bit more of a buzz about Trichotomy in the UK this time round. I’m anticipating bigger audiences and some great music on this upcoming tour.   


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