Traditionally, and with clear exceptions, the success of a jazz performance depends on the three musicians at the fulcrum of the sound—the pianist, bassist, and drummer. Whether as a standalone group or a rhythm section for a larger band, this unit conveys the values that the composing mind holds dear.

Nowhere are these values more starkly apparent than in a discrete, three-person ensemble. Through his eponymous trio, for instance, pianist Ahmad Jamal introduced the notion of sound quality over quantity, turning away from the speedy, complex bebop riffing of his day. Later, Bill Evans refined the trio sound, setting a new standard for small jazz ensembles. And today, contemporary groups like The Bad Plus push the trio tradition one step further with their use of modern jazz idioms and popular music sources.

Drawing inspiration and ideas from precedents like these, several jazz trios have recent releases that add new dimensions to the trio format. Each of these groups—all piano-based, though not necessarily piano-led—speaks with a unique, commanding voice.    

 On drummer Jeff William’s fifth record for Whirlwind, Bloom , he joins with longtime colleague, bassist Michael Formanek and rising star pianist Carmen Staaf to turn out 10 originals and one standards redux. On the record, the group crackles with energy, thanks to Williams’ flinty playing, Staaf’s inventive chord changes, and Formanek’s deep feeling.

To hear how assertively the trio tackles a groove, listen to Williams’ “Scrunge/Search Me” with its insistent 7/8 pulse. For straight-up improvisation and melodicism, check out Staaf’s blues tune “New York Landing.” Then chase all of this down with Formanek’s “Ballad of the Weak,” the most contemplative piece of the lot. A most satisfying listen.  

The Tel Aviv group Shalosh—which means “three” in Hebrew—works as a collective, sans leader. Their latest album, Onwards and Upwards, displays a similarly inclusive attitude toward style—their jazz repertoire draws on diverse sources from the worlds of rock, classical, and world music.

This eclecticism plays out intriguingly in their work. Pianist Gadi Stern, bassist David Michaeli, and drummer Matan Assaya give as much attention to form as a classicist and to cathartic build as a rock musician without sacrificing their improvisatory ethos. Finally, as self-avowed children of the ‘90s, the trio seeks to inspire conflict resolution through their music. A slam dunk.  

As the translation of its title implies, the Guillaume Cherpitel Trio’s new album, Choc , is about disrupting the complacent. On Choc (“shock” in English) French pianist Guillaume Cherpitel and his modern jazz trio barely pause for breath as they cycle through a decade of original compositions.

Throughout the album Cherpitel impels his trio in relentless movement—sometimes electric, sometimes rolling, but always forward. While he revels in stunningly symmetrical comping, drummer Alexandre Ambroziak and bassist Jean-Luc Déat provide some syncopated contrast.

The aptly named Briotrio (drummer Arne Sjøen, pianist Ingrid Steinkopf, and bassist Thomas Lossius) positively sparkles on their debut release, Briotrio . The recently formed acoustic group, based in Bergen, Norway, gravitates toward light, cool swing and amusing stories—this record contains not one somber moment.  

The upbeat, simply stated “Første Vals” pokes fun in ¾ time; “Kor E Du?” (“Where Are You?”) brings out the bounce in a Latin vibe; and the unexplained “???” shows off the players’ well-honed ensemble skills. In a word: Charming.

At 150 recordings strong, pianist Bill Mays had no shortage of material for last year’s COTA (Celebration of the Arts) festival in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania. The live recording from that gig, Bill Mays Trio Live at COTA, reunites Mays with bassist Martin Wind and drummer Matt Wilson for their first trio release in a decade.

As hard-swinging as ever, the three players can displace atoms with their combined fire. They made room for some poignant homages, though: “Goodbye, Mr. Evans,” for Bill Evans; “Sun of the East” for pianist/composer Lennie Tristano; and “Nothing Like You,” for pianist/composer Bob Dorough.

(Reprinted from the July 2019 issue of Downbeat magazine)