Peter Erskine Trio ‘As It Was’ 4CD Box Set (ECM) 5/5

peter-erskine-trioAs far as piano trios go, this was one of the finest to grace the jazz scene during the 1990s, using the innovations of the Bill Evans trio as a starting point, but then veering off in other directions, and this four CD set is an outstanding example of what is possible with the format when three musicians of the highest calibre combine in unison on a project that is devoid of egos and where the music is uppermost in their minds and hearts. The music in addition, serves as a fitting tribute to the late John Taylor who left us last year and was arguably at his most comfortable in the setting of a trio. Chronologically, the albums showcased cover a period of some five years between 1992 and 1997 during which time the trio performed live in the UK to great acclaim, but the quality of the playing and the overall excellence of the in-group compositions make this music seem utterly timeless in character.
One towering feature of the recordings as a whole is the extent to which John Taylor dominates as principal author of the largely self-contained compositions, fifteen in his own right and another two as co-composer. During the 1990s Taylor’s reputation soared and his output increased both as sideman and leader, with regular performances within the ECM roster. If anything, the pianist was something of a late bloomer and had found a happy medium between creative writing and performing on the one hand, and teaching on a quasi-permanent basis on the other. By the early 1990s Taylor was at ease in that environment and the music is enriched as a consequence, though it is important to stress that it is the ensemble performances that entice the listener first and foremost.

The debut CD from 1992, ‘You never know’, has a natural freshness to it and is a favourite of many precisely because of that. Typifying the sound is the Taylor-penned, ‘New Old Age’, which commences as a solo piano number before the rhythm section gently enter. Boasting the prettiest of melodies, ‘Groundhog Day’, retains a floating feel throughout while ‘Clapperclowe’ offers something of a Latin feel with Erskine’s work on rim drum, taken here at a rapid tempo. and indeed this became a regular live number in the trio’s repertoire.

An initial attempt at collective writing occurred on the second album,’Time Being’, from 1993 and here the compositions were more evenly spread, with Taylor and Erskine predominating. However, bassist Palle Danielsson did offer up both his own piece and a joint number. Impressionistic hues are the order of the day with Erskine’s ‘Bulgaria’ actually having more of a South African feel with intricate bass and drum work. In comparison Taylor evokes closer to home pleasures on, ‘Ambleside’, an ode to the Lake District and a joyous piece with blues inflections and album highlight.

Arguably, the most compelling of all the recordings is the third,’ As it is’ (1995), which is notable for a sumptuous re-reading of William Walton’s classical opus, ‘Touch Her Soft Lips And Part’. By now, the trio were comfortable together and delivered an outstanding album overall with the positivity of ,’Esperança’ and the evocative, ‘Au contraire’. In 1997, the trio released a fourth and final outing, ‘Juni’, with Erskine more in charge and a varied set of pieces. If the opener, ‘Prelude no. 2’ is something of a free form composition, then the gentle crescendo of cymbals on, ‘For Jan’, is a simpler offering with catchy riff, while the pièce de résistance is probably, ‘The Ant And The Elk’, where on the surface not a great deal appears to be happening, yet underneath the music is more complex with a staccato feel and more improvised in nature. Mention must be made of the inclusion of compositions by Vince Mendoza and Kenny Wheeler, both gifted arrangers and writers, and their contributions allied to the high level of interaction of the constituent members creates the defining gel that marks this trio out from the rest.

In recent times, ECM inner sleeve notes have become more expansive in their outlook and this latest collection proves no exception with extensive notes courtesy of John Kelman who sheds important light on the music and individual musicians. Impeccable sound quality. The only pity is that, at this juncture at least, the trio do not appear to have been recorded live and hearing the trio stretch out on some of these endearing compositions would help complete the picture for the listener.

Tim Stenhouse