Quinsin Nachoff ‘Ethereal Trio’ CD (Whirlwind) 4/5

Tenor saxophonist Nachoff is in heavy company here with Mark Helias on double bass and Dan Weiss at the drums. Although piano-less trios are not new; one only needs to think of Sonny Rollins for example, who was mining this field in the late 1950’s, I must confess that I generally feel uncomfortable listening to such trios and I miss the grounding effect that a chordal instrument brings to an ensemble. So I approached this release with some trepidation. However, the trio has no difficulty creating new ways to communicate without the need of a harmonic buttress offered by a chordal instrument. Here, finding new ways for jazz expression.

Perhaps this format arose for reasons of economy leading musicians to adopt a “go lean” approach, but more than likely is was a conscious artistic decision.

Other practitioners who have been successful in this genre include bassist Dave Holland, and saxophonists Joe Henderson and Dave Liebman, Joe Lovano and Albert Ayler. This list alone covers quite a wide spectrum of music. It seems to be a working environment favoured by saxophonists as Mark Turner has also been active in this arena. Indeed, currently saxophonist John O’Gallagher also has a new piano-less trio album just released on Whirlwind and it might be constructive to compare and contrast these two albums.

Helias has wide-ranging musical tastes having worked most notably in the more experimental end of the music with Anthony Braxton and Cecil Taylor but also with Abbey Lincoln and Mose Allison.

Weiss has a similar wide-ranging pedigree having worked with Lee Konitz, David Binney and Tim Berne. So it’s clear that Nachoff couldn’t have picked any better sparring partners.

Quinsin is Canadian born but currently New York-based.

The recording consists of original material.

The chord-less trio allows the saxophonist to compose material either harmonically or contrapuntally. With Helias we have the impression that harmony is never actually absent. This format allows the instrumentalists much more freedom for expression. The opening track ‘Clairvoyant Jest’ immediately introduces us to the saxophonists ravishing sound. The theme takes swing as its starting point and so we are on familiar territory. All three performers swing and that’s what matters for me. The next track ‘Imagination Reconstruction’ sees the saxophonist almost percussive sound and again the trio work together delightfully.

‘Gravitas’ follows and it’s more introspective and, yes, ethereal. There is lovely subtle playing all round and a particular delight is the drummer’s brush-work.

‘Subliminal Circularity’ is a raw piece of music with less common reference points than the preceding pieces. Something of a challenging listen, but worth the effort.

‘Push-Pull Topology’ plays with time in wonderful ways and demands the listener’s full attention.

The final track ‘Portrait in Sepia Tones’ is an exciting up-tempo piece. A real tour de force for all concerned. A “percussive maelstrom”, indeed.

It’s clear throughout the album that all three musicians revel in each other’s company. The saxophonist, in particular, is a fearless explorer of contemporary jazz expression. This is an album well worth investigating.

Alan Musson