One of the elements that often defines “jazz” music in many peoples’ minds is instrumentation. The term “jazz” immediately elicits sounds of a swinging big band, a hot New Orleans combo, or a driving hard bop quintet. Another definitive format has long been a favorite of fans and afficionados across the globe, appreciated because its minimalist setting highlights the virtuosic creativity of its practitioners: the piano trio.
While the piano has been an integral part of jazz music since the late 19th century, it wasn’t until the 1930s that the modern piano trio was first conceived, pioneered by Nat “King” Cole, and quite by accident. On the strength of his solo piano work, Cole was hired to lead a small group for a regular stint at a Hollywood hotel. He initially hired a quartet with Guitarist Oscar Moore, bassist Wesley Prince, and drummer Lee Young. But the first night out, Young “took one look at the little bandstand at the cozy Swanee Inn and said there was no room for a drummer.” The Nat Cole Swingsters (as they were called then) performed without a drummer, and the modern piano trio was born. In short order, the King Cole Trio became widely popular with hits like “Straighten Up and Fly Right” and “Honeysuckle Rose.”
In the 1950s, Ahmad Jamal made a huge splash with his own trio, and his early recordings were incredibly formative not only for other pianists, but also within the hard bop movement, shaping the music of artists like Horace Silver and Miles Davis. Contrary to the implications of its minimalist trappings, Jamal utilized the trio as a springboard for wonderfully complex and inventive arrangements, such as his famed Pershing recording of “Poinciana,” and on later albums like The Awakening (1970).
Oscar Peterson arguably standardized today’s trio orientation, swapping the guitar for drums. With an unimpeachable swing, he combines the comfort of blues and roots sounds with thrilling, Tatum-like virtuosity, evidenced on albums like Night Train (1962) and Walking the Line (1970). On the other end of the spectrum, Bill Evans is celebrated for his understated impressionism. Evans’ trios were visionary in their democratic approach, using the trio setting to explore truly equal, creative dialogue amongst its members, as heard on Sunday at the Village Vanguard (1961) and Waltz For Debby (1962). Invariably, the contributions of the bassist and drummer are every bit as intricate and intriguing as Evans’ improvised lines.
Keith Jarrett’s extraordinary “Standards Trio” with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette reshaped the Great American Songbook with modernist post-bop sensibilities and a religious devotion to Evans’ concept of group interplay. Beginning with Standards Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, the trio recorded prolifically for more than two decades, culminating in Up For It (2002) and Somewhere (2009). More recently, Brad Mehldau has been a sort of second coming of Bill Evans, drawing on an even wider array of classical techniques while instigating the exploration of the New American Songbook, adding works to the repertoire by Nick Drake, The Beatles, Radiohead, Chris Cornell, and more. Vijay Iyer and Jason Moran have generated some of the most exciting trio music ever produced, incorporating harmonic and rhythmic ideas drawn from hip-hop and R&B into the vernacular, synthesized with avant garde principles and the bebop language of Monk and Bud Powell. Japanese pianist Hiromi Uehara, a protogé of Chick Corea, is among the most technically accomplished pianists of her generation and delivers exciting, acoustic trio music with the veracity and momentum of jazz fusion.
The piano trio is a well-established format, but the music itself is far from traditional. It remains a conduit for continued musical exploration, evolution, and discovery. You can hear the evolution of the trio and all its myriad iterations Mondays at 5:00 PM on The Key Players on Jazz 93.5.