The piano trio is a well-established jazz line-up, and its popularity is at something of a high on the British scene. The apparent ubiquity of the format makes it difficult to see how there can be room for originality, then along comes the combination of pianist John Law, bassist Sam Burgess and drummer Asaf Sirkis and such concerns go out of the window. The trio is one of the most distinctive groups around, as it showed during two sets at Norwich Arts Centre.
John Law's "Art of Sound" project has produced four diverse and engaging CDs. The 2009 release, Congregation: The Art of Sound Volume 4 (33 Jazz), is the final volume, and it provided the central core of tunes for this performance in Norwich - a performance characterized by fine musicianship, the occasional bad joke, and an object lesson in the effective use of low-budget effects.
The evening opened with two as yet unrecorded tunes: "Dreaming of Now" proved a hypnotic composition, building momentum from Law's initially gentle pace; "As If," written for drummer Sirkis, was a funky, up-tempo tune that generated a good deal of head-nodding and foot-tapping in the audience. Between songs Law apologized, amusingly tongue-in-cheek, for the band's lack of familiarity with the two pieces. The alleged lack of familiarity was not as obvious as Law suggested and, though bassist Burgess did sound somewhat hesitant on one or two occasions during "As If," once the trio moved on to more familiar compositions, the abilities of the individual members and and their shared understanding was never in doubt.
Law's refusal to play safe characterizes the Art of Sound project: there is obvious progression across the four albums: the first and fourth are trio recordings, the second and third are solo albums, and Volume 4 saw the introduction of some electronic effects, which on stage the pianist used sparingly, intent on adding to the trio's acoustic sounds rather than overwhelming them. It was fascinating if not reassuring to see that Law has not fallen into the technology trap - his effects came mainly from cheap, and well-worn, children's toys, along with the judicious use of sheets of paper - no complex computer set-up in sight. Sirkis also favored a low-tech approach to creating his wide range of percussion sounds, sometimes using sticks, mallets, brushes and fingertips in the course of a single tune, occasionally draping a piece of blanket over a drum and on one or two numbers playing a small glockenspiel kept beside his kit.
The trio began the second set with three tunes from Congregation: "Congregation," "Chorale" and "Trap Clap." These were the most powerful, involving and enjoyable performances of the night, seeming to pass by in mere seconds. "Congregation" was a fast-paced, energetic tour de force, driven by some outstanding ensemble playing. "Chorale," a melodic and gentle composition, which also appears as a solo piece on Chorale: The Art Of Sound Volume 3 (33 Jazz, 2008), was reflective and thoughtful. "Trap Clap" required some preparation for Law's piano and Burgess' bass - Law added some electronic effects and brief snatches of talk radio to the piece, while the addition of scrunched-up sheets of paper between the strings of both instruments produced fascinating sounds and a surprisingly driving rhythm.
The performance closed, appropriately, with "The Journey Home." Afterward, the real journey home offered a few quiet moments to contemplate the joys of the night's imaginative and inventive performance.
Bruce Lindsay All About Jazz December 2009