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To Vanish

by Ian Mann

March 30, 2023


2023 finds Trichotomy to be as restlessly creative as ever, still developing and redefining their sound as the trio continue to find new musical ground to explore.


“To Vanish”

(Earshift Music EAR070)

Sean Foran – piano, keyboards, electronics, John Parker – drums, percussion, electronics, Samuel Vincent – double bass, electronics

with guests; Danny Widdicombe – pedal steel guitar, Nicole Tait – bassoon, Thomas Green – keyboards

The Australian piano trio Trichotomy have been Jazzmann favourites since I reviewed their album “Variations” back in 2010 and enjoyed a live performance by the band at Stratford-upon-Avon Jazz Club shortly afterwards. I’ve since seen three further performances by the trio in Cardiff, all of them excellent. The first two were at the now defunct Café Jazz in 2011 and 2013, the third at the Dora Stoutzker Concert Hall at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in February 2017. The Stratford gig and the two Café Jazz performances are reviewed elsewhere on The Jazzmann.

I have also continued to keep abreast of Trichotomy’s recorded output and have reviewed their studio albums “The Gentle War” (2011), “Fact Finding Mission”  (2013) and “KNOWN-UNKNOWN” (2017), the latter appearing on the Dutch imprint Challenge Records following a lengthy tenure with the British label Naim Jazz. 2017 also saw the digital release of “Live With String Quartet”, a superb concert recording from the 2014 Declassified Music Festival in Brisbane.

Originally founded in 1999 at Queensland Conservatorium Brisbane based Trichotomy have been together for over twenty years and are a highly interactive trio with a strong group identity. “Variations” was their third album but the first to enjoy an international release and it’s fair to say that each subsequent recording has exhibited clear signs of artistic growth, an impressive feat for a band of such longevity.

Trichotomy features founder members pianist Sean Foran and drummer John Parker with Samuel Vincent taking over the bass chair in 2014, replacing the long serving Pat Marchisella. The trio’s music had always been written by Foran and Parker with each album being split roughly fifty-fifty albeit with a slight bias towards the prolific Foran. However Vincent has added a third compositional voice to the group with credits on both “KNOWN_UNKNOWN” and this current album.

Trichotomy have always been open to many influences from jazz to rock to modern classical music. They have cited as inspirations such diverse acts as The Necks, E.S.T., The Bad Plus, Tord Gustavsen, Vijay Iyer, Brad Mehldau, Pat Metheny,  John Zorn, Nik Bartsch, Radiohead, Aphex Twin, Tortoise and Igor Stravinsky.

The trio have always collaborated with other musicians and their studio recordings have included guest appearances by string and horn players, guitarists and percussionists. They have also worked frequently with classical ensembles including the Southern Cross Soloists, Collusion, Lunarie Collective and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. 

In 2014 Trichotomy worked in conjunction with the chamber ensemble Topology to produce the album “Healthy”, a work co-credited to both ensembles. It’s a recording that slipped through the Jazzmann’s reviewing net but its success encouraged the further classical collaborations detailed above.

In May 2017 Trichotomy collaborated with the Expressions Dance Company providing music for the show “Behind Closed Doors”, the music subsequently being released on the album of the same name. The recording features contributions from vocalist Kristin Berardi, saxophonists Rafael Karlen and Julian Arguelles, guitarist Stuart McCallum, cellist Ben Davis and drummer Joost Hendrickx.

The UK based musicians Arguelles, McCallum, Davis and Hendrickx all appeared on Foran’s excellent solo album “Frame of Reference” which was released in 2016.
Review here;

Trichotomy, and particularly Foran, have retained strong ties with the UK, links that were forged when Foran spent some time studying at Leeds College of Music. It’s these bonds that have helped to encourage Trichotomy’s frequent visits to the UK, usually in the British winter as they endeavour to escape the savage heat and humidity of the summers in their Brisbane home.

In 2019 Foran collaborated with McCallum on the duo album “Counterpart”, a recording that also included contributions from Parker and from British bassist Sam Vicary. Review here;

The pianist followed this in 2020 with “Haven”, an excellent quartet album that featured Foran, Berardi and Karlen with guest vibraphonist Pascal Schumacher.
Review here;

The lockdown period represented a testing time for Trichotomy who had recorded the music for “To Vanish” in December 2019 with the intention of touring the music in 2020, something that never happened. To “keep the creative juices flowing” as Foran puts it the group members, in conjunction with recording engineer Addison Joy treated the tracks to an unprecedented degree of post-production for a Trichotomy recording, substantially altering the band’s sound in the process with all three group members receiving a credit for ‘electronics’.

Now that the trio are back touring again the effect of all this on their live performances has been profound. I recently enjoyed a superb live show by the trio at Clun Valley Jazz in the Shropshire town of Bishop’s Castle, which saw all three members supplementing their ‘conventional’ instruments with electronics. Parker deployed a loop station, Vincent a pedalboard and even Foran had devices to alter the sound of the venue’s upright acoustic piano. The programme contained items from the new album, some choice cuts from the back catalogue and a small number of newer, as yet unrecorded pieces. The band went down a storm with the crowd and CD and vinyl sales were particularly healthy with the CD edition of “To Vanish” selling out halfway through the tour! Things are almost going too well!  The music was superb and it was also good for me to meet up with Sean, John and Sam in person for the first time since 2017.

The post lockdown period has also seen Trichotomy collaborating with a number of percussion ensembles as they continue to bridge the gap between jazz and contemporary classical music. Vibraphones and marimbas have played a substantial role in the resultant music and the trio have established a particularly fruitful musical relationship with the Brisbane based percussionist Nozomi Omote.

Turning now to the new recording, which commences with “Forward Motion”, a tune co-written by Foran and Vincent and which features a guest appearance from pedal steel guitarist Danny Widdicombe. Trichotomy collaborated with the country /blues / folk guitarist, vocalist and songwriter on the 2019 album “Between The Lines”, a collection of songs written by Widdicombe and performed by the composer in conjunction with the members of Trichotomy.
“Forward Motion” itself is a highly rhythmic piece with interlocking rhythms created via a combination of double bass, drums and percussion and arpeggiated piano featuring the sounds of dampened piano strings. It’s also highly atmospheric, thanks to the keening, swirling sounds of Widdicombe’s haunting and evocative pedal steel.
Co-composer Foran remarks; “I wanted to write something that only had 3 sections, something deceptively simple and let the layers of sound drive the work”.

Foran’s “Mercury” explores similar territory, with the sounds of dampened piano strings again being deployed. Simple melodic ideas are layered and developed with the sound of Parker’s drums subject to electronic manipulation and with the eerie tones of the Juno synthesiser taking over Widdicombe’s role. Once again this is music that is highly evocative and possessed of a certain cinematic quality. Drummer Parker says of the trio’s new approach; “It’s different from anything we’ve previously released. I think so much of the stuff we’ve been working on, the electronics, the projects with percussion and Danny.. all of this has translated into a lush, fluid sound”.

Co-written by Vincent and Parker “Study” is modelled on a classical etude and includes subtle electronica alongside the gently intertwining piano and bass lines, with Vincent playing both with and without the bow. The rich, dark, melancholic arco passages are particularly evocative. Co-composer Vincent says of the piece;  “It was an interesting compositional process, with John providing the initial concepts and then passing it to me to takeover halfway”,

Written by Foran “It Bodes Well” adds the sound of Parker’s wife, bassoonist Nicole Tait, to the group.  “I wanted to write a track that was a kind of off kilter groove piece” explains Foran “something with a rhythmic funky bass line and gospelish piano chords, but with melodic parts that had a sense of instability to them” 
It’s a fascinating piece that introduces itself with a rousing broken funk groove, initially featuring the sound of bowed bass. Those gospel inflections are later stirred in as the piece gathers a head of steam,  reminiscent at times of E.S.T at their most accessible, and particularly so when Vincent takes up the bow once more.

Also from the pen of Foran “Reassemble” continues the mood established on “It Bodes Well” as it combines strong rhythms and melodies with electronics on one of the album’s stand out pieces. The electronic effects were all realised live in the studio as the trio members, plus Joy, manipulated the sounds of the acoustic instruments, while stirring in a soupçon of synth bass. It’s a composition that goes through a series of dynamic changes with powerful grooves alternating with gentler, more impressionistic passages, such as the one that closes the piece. Foran states; “This track feels like a classic Trichotomy piece, but gets deeper into the electronic effects, a concept we first worked on in our last album KNOWN/UNKNOWN… it’s more controlled and lush here, which I love”.

“A Sense Of Ordered Chaos” was written by Foran as a commission for  a history project in Queensland, where composers crafted new works in response to historical musical documents of the region. “I wrote the track for quartet, piano, bass, drums and trumpet, and hoped that in recording it later as just trio it’d still work” its composer notes. Like much of Trichotomy’s out put it places a strong emphasis on rhythm and is based around an odd meter 7/4 groove, but there’s a focus on melody too, with both Foran and Vincent contributing in this regard. The piece is also something of a tour de force for Parker, who cuts loose at the drum kit on a couple of occasions. There’s also a strong electronic component with the sound of the piano being manipulated at various junctures.

Parker takes up the compositional reins for the title track, a piece that has been described as a ballad but which is far more than that. The already wispy arpeggiated melodies played by Foran on piano and Rhodes and by Vincent on the bass are eventually absorbed into an electronic soundscape, vanishing if you will, before eventually re-emerging.

Parker also contributes the remarkable “Fibonacci”, which features contributions from bassoonist Tait and keyboard player Thomas Green. The latter is also a composer and has worked closely with the band on their percussion ensemble projects. As its title might suggest the piece is a baffling, but thrilling, forest of interlocking rhythms, with the bassoon playing an integral part in the proceedings. With regard to Green’s contribution the trio say; “We also wanted to bring in composer/producer/keyboardist Thomas Green on this work, so after recording it, we passed it to Tom to work his magic on. As the track progresses, the intensity builds, with synthesiser textures enveloping the trio playing and augmenting the parts”.

The prolific Foran takes over the compositional responsibilities on “In Times Past And Present”, a more lyrical piece written in three distinct sections.
Foran says of his creation; “I wanted to create a kind of 3 movement work, with an initial exposition, main section of improvised exploration and a concluding melodic wrap up. The intent is to take the audience through a journey, with each section being totally different to the previous, using varied performance techniques and sounds. It’s a journey where the past and the present inform each other, combining to create an engaging musical experience”.
The lyrical opening passage gives way to a more loosely structured improvised, or ‘free jazz’ section that makes extensive use of electronic effects. The piece then concludes with a more forceful groove based section with Foran the featured soloist.

The album concludes with Foran’s “Lynette”, a piece that the band dedicate to their friend Lynette Irwin, the Director of Brisbane Jazz. It’s an uplifting piece written as a celebration, with the band declaring;  “it’s vivacious, with a bouncing energy, much like Lynette herself!” Along the way we enjoy solos from Foran and Vincent, with Parker also featuring strongly at the kit. There’s little electronic embellishment here as the trio round things off with an essentially acoustic performance.

2023 finds Trichotomy to be as restlessly creative as ever, still developing and redefining their sound, collaborating with a wide range of musicians across a variety of genres and also relishing life on the road once more. The Bishop’s Castle show was a magnificent performance and the same can be said of this terrific album. Trichotomy continue to challenge themselves and to rise to those challenges superbly. “To Vanish” takes their post E.S.T. sound into new territory as the trio continue to find new musical ground to explore. Foran, Parker and Vincent are all superb technicians but it’s their inventiveness and openness as writers and collaborators that really sets them apart and demands that Trichotomy continue be considered as one of Australia’s leading musical exports.

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