About the album
In classical music, the term “piano trio” signifies a formation consisting of violin, cello and piano. From Beethoven to Brahms and beyond, there is a wealth of composition for this highly productive chamber music structure. The jazz friend, on the other hand, understands “piano trio” as a combination of piano, double bass and drums. That’s what we’re talking about here. Precursors of this preeminently important line-up in the jazz world were undoubtedly the pianists who developed the “stride style” early on, and were able to play fully – and cheaply – without the support of a rhythm section. But later the addition of bass and drums allowed more rhythmic, melodic and tonal richness. It also freed pianists from the need to mark rhythm with their left hand, allowing the development of new piano styles. In addition, the trio became the ideal partner for wind instruments. One-wind-plus-trio quartets and two-wind quintets soon came to dominate the jazz scene.
To this day, a very large part of jazz production is based on these instrumental combinations, which often are expanded to include additional wind instruments. Singers also discovered and still use the trio as their accompanying formation. In the turbulent ‘60s and ‘70s, when some jazz musicians, following pioneers such as Cecil Taylor and Paul Bley, began to explore free improvisation, they began to leave the constraints of the trio behind. With new ideas of a music freed from the shackles of fixed form and harmonies, egalitarian concepts were adopted. The subservient role of a merely accompanying element associated with the term “rhythm section” vehemently contradicted this trend. The Free Jazz revolution is probably inseparable from the large youth developments of the 1960s: the flower power movement in the USA and the generation of ‘68 over here. In music – and probably not just in music – this also brought with it a certain anti-exclusivity mentality: everyone can participate and live out their creativity; art knows no prohibitions; or as the painter Joseph Beuys proclaimed, “Everyone is an artist”. In this atmosphere, it was inevitable that many a peer turned up in New Jazz in those years who didn’t actually belong there: would-be musicians who hadn’t really mastered their instrument and, on closer inspection, were only tenuously anchored in music.
Let’s return to our subject. In the piano trio of the 1960s, the servile function of bass and drums had already largely been left behind along an evolutionary path. One thinks of the Bill Evans Trio and its role model function for many young musicians around the world. But for many adepts of Free Form that wasn’t enough. New instrumental combinations should replace the established constructs. A duo of piccolo and bass tuba? Why not! New music demands new sounds. These developments were undoubtedly legitimate, almost self-evident in the atmosphere of dramatic upheaval that was the ‘60s.
But it was probably more the theoreticians who advanced this trend, because even a quick look back at the jazz scene shows that the established ensembles continued to exist largely unchanged, even in the new revolutionary environment. The piano trio combined with wind instruments remained a solid cornerstone in Free Jazz. At the time, I was very keen to follow what was new in jazz and to incorporate it as much as I could, and I can tell you a lot of recordings found their way into my headphones. But I’ve come across very few records that persuaded me that the wishes of the radicals had ever been realized. I remember that when we invited Albert Mangelsdorff to one of our “Jazz Live” concerts in the Zurich Radio Studio, he had complained that he couldn’t find anyone with whom he could make free duo music. He would very much have liked to try it, but I don’t know if he was ever able to satisfactorily implement his experiment.
In the ‘70s, the work of our group “Magog” (not entirely unnoticed at home or abroad) attempted in a rather evolutionary way to create music which was at the same time bound and unbound, structured and free. The project was initially shaped by extensive discussions about the correct approach to achieve a music that was as original and independent as possible. Finally, a combo made up of three wind instruments along with my trio was a given for us all. When the Swiss foundation Pro Helvetia sent us to the Ljubljana Festival in 1975, we had the opportunity to hear both Art Blakey’s “Jazz Messengers” and Cecil Taylor’s formation at the time. Although playing completely different music, both grandmasters performed in the same line-up: the “classical” quintet consisting of two wind instruments and a piano trio. Clearly, the roles played by the musicians in Taylor’s group weren’t the same as those in Blakey’s. As already explained above, Free Jazz was associated with the idea that all musicians should participate in the music as far as possible on an equal footing. This led to a more linear, “horizontal” way of making music, compared to the old, comparatively more “vertical” way of playing. The combination of instruments, however, remained largely unaffected by this change. Carla Bley belonged to the Free Jazz scene of the 60s. I remember well a concert in Zurich where she performed with a quartet of piano trio and trumpet. From her ex-husband Paul Bley (one of the key figures in the free movement and alternative to Cecil Taylor), I remember a wonderful LP on which he plays with a quintet of two horns and trio.
In our “Jazz Live” radio concerts in the ‘60s through the ‘80s, for which I was responsible for the musical programming, we also invited well-known representatives of free music such as the above mentioned Albert Mangelsdorff, Francois Jeanneau and Enrico Rava as soloists playing with my trio live on the program for an hour. None of them questioned the combination of solo instrument plus trio. The traditional quartet formation was also quite normal for these soloists, each of whom was wholly committed to Free Jazz at the time. Let’s draw a conclusion: questioning the composition of jazz ensembles in times of upheaval like the Free Jazz revolution is undoubtedly legitimate. But in hindsight it becomes clear that for many leading exponents of this movement, the makeup of the groups was by no means of primary importance. Today, in a phase where the concept of jazz seems to be expanding and in which drawing a line between jazz and non-jazz often becomes problematic, the question of format comes up again. Will the piano trio retain its dominant role? Qui vivrà verrà.
Bei unseren "Jazz Live"-Radiokonzerten in den 60er bis 80er Jahren, bei denen ich für die musikalische Programmgestaltung verantwortlich war, haben wir auch bekannte Vertreter der freien Musik wie Albert Mangelsdorff, Francois Jeanneau und Enrico Rava als Solisten eingeladen, die mit meinem Trio eine Stunde lang live in der Sendung spielten. Keiner von ihnen stellte die Kombination von Soloinstrument und Trio in Frage. Auch die traditionelle Quartettbesetzung war für diese Solisten, die sich damals allesamt dem Free Jazz verschrieben hatten, ganz normal. Ziehen wir ein Fazit: Die Zusammensetzung von Jazz-Ensembles in Zeiten des Umbruchs wie der Free Jazz-Revolution zu hinterfragen, ist zweifellos legitim. Aber im Nachhinein wird deutlich, dass für viele führende Vertreter dieser Bewegung die Zusammensetzung der Gruppen keineswegs von primärer Bedeutung war. Heute, in einer Phase, in der sich der Jazzbegriff zu erweitern scheint und in der die Abgrenzung zwischen Jazz und Nicht-Jazz oft problematisch wird, stellt sich die Frage nach dem Format erneut. Wird das Klaviertrio seine dominierende Rolle beibehalten? Qui vivrà verrà.