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February 11, 2010

What Makes a Great Jazz Trio?

By Carlos Palomares

Editor’s note: The Bad Plus jazz trio perform with saxophonist Joshua Redman on April 23, 2016.

One of the great jazz trios in jazz history was the Bill Evans Trio. In many ways this trio illustrates the best features of a great jazz trio.

Classic Jazz Trio Instrumentation

Variations can be found throughout jazz history, but the standard jazz trio setting is the piano trio, with piano, bass, and drums. As Gerard Cox writes: ”

A piano trio takes full advantage of swing, interaction, and dynamics… since 1960 piano trios have become more interactive and democratic. Formerly, in the heyday of both swing and bop, the piano assumed a very dominant role where, it would have been fair to say, it was less a trio in the ideal sense of three equal parts, than it was piano PLUS bass and drums.

The obvious distinction of a jazz trio compared to any other jazz ensemble is that it is made up of three musicians. This simple distinction is important, though, because of the possibilities and restrictions that it presents. The choice of which three instruments determines much of the sound and textural possibilities. By limiting the ensemble to just three musicians, each musician has more musical possibilities and responsibilities.

The Trio Advantage

The trio strikes a delicate balance. The larger the band, the more limited the possibilities for each musician. Each instrument needs to find its place in the sonic palette and rhythmic scheme. The smaller the band the more limited the varieties of timbre. Each instrument needs to provide enough variety of sounds and phrases to keep the listeners interest.

By reducing the number of musicians, a trio opens more space in the sonic texture for each musician to explore. In larger ensembles each musician can be forced into pre-determined roles by the very nature that each instrument must compete for space in the sound spectrum. Without careful orchestration of parts the group easily descends into a cacophony of chaos (though at times chaos may be a desired effect).

If the smaller group equals more sonic space, then a solo performer is free to explore all of the soundscape as he or she chooses. The solo performer, however, is restricted because all of the basic elements of melody, harmony, rhythm, texture, and form fall on the soloist’s shoulders. The solo musician is exposed at all times, but the trio musician can expect the support of the other two musicians. This support frees him or her to be adventurous. You might say that the trio musician walks the  musical tightrope with a safety net that is not there when performing alone.

The Jazz Trio Sound

If you are like most people, the sound you imagine when you think of a jazz trio may be closer to that of Bill Charlap’s trio, which UMS presented last fall, than the sound of The Bad Plus or the Luciana Souza Trio.

Listen to “My Shining Hour” – Bill Charlap…

The driving swing rhythm of Charlap’s trio on “My Shining Hour” epitomizes the style. The steady walking bass and sizzling brush work by the drummer together with the left hand comping of the piano support the melodic musing on the piano. Occasionally the bass player and drummer get featured on solos. When they are at their best the three instruments are in dialogue as each musician responds to the musical statements of the others.

The sound of The Bad Plus is very different.  Not content to stick with jazz standards, or the “Great American Songbook” (Gershwin, Kern, Berlin, etc.), this trio emphasizes expanding the jazz repertoire by including both popular music, like Nirvana and Pink Floyd, as well as contemporary “art music,” like Igor Stravinsky and Milton Babbitt. The genre-bending repertoire frees the group to explore other textures and rhythms. The group is just as likely to explore odd-time signatures or a straight rock back-beat.

The Bad Plus

For another flavor, Luciana Souza’s trio instrumentation features her voice along with guitar and percussion. If the review from the Trio’s Boston performance last month is any indication, then the trio will explore the Brazilian sounds of Samba and Bossa Nova. The change in instrumentation opens up another possible sound pallet.

Duos III – Luciana Souza

The Jazz Debate

If you are confused how these different sounds are all classified as “jazz,” you’re not alone. You don’t need to search far on the web to know that the question what is or is not “jazz” is up for debate. I won’t settle that debate in this post, but a the Monk Institute’s Jazz curriculum calls jazz “a musical conversation: a partly planned and partly spontaneous musical dialogue among the musicians who are performing it.” All of the great jazz trios embody this idea of a musical conversation.

We Want Your Take!

What do you think are the greatest jazz trios of all time?  What are the greatest or most important jazz trio recordings?  What was your favorite UMS presentation of a Jazz trio?


Carlos Palomares was the UMS Production Manager/Artist Services Coordinator from 2007-2010. He received his MA in Ethnomusicology at Michigan in 2007.