Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Larry Goldings, Peter Bernstein and Bill Stewart's Toy Tunes

Another day, another organ trio. As I've said repeatedly, this is not a bad thing. I'm really digging the preponderance of these ensembles in today's contemporary jazz scene. After listening to a least a dozen of these outfits over the last few months, the thing that strikes me the most is how these simple trios can adopt such a distinctive sound and attitude despite the simplicity of their arrangements--hip, nostalgic, earthy, sinister, whatever else you got. Larry Goldings, Peter Bernstein and Bill Stewart have been recording as an organ trio since the early '90s--Toy Tunes is their twelfth release--and they whip up a distinctive mood as well, and that's mellow.

Mellow can be intriguing, of course, if you know how to focus and listen carefully. While there's a certain spareness to their overall sound, bordering on reticent, they teeter along the precarious edges of jazz enough so that they're never boring or indifferent in the way they pursue familiar themes and melodies. This smoothness, always flirting with the adventurous, is usually centered on Bernstein's guitar. It's that classic jazz guitar sound, clear and unfettered with distortion. He plays the lead most of the time, carrying the melody, while Goldings' Hammond B-3 provides the atmosphere. I know I overuse the term texture at times when I'm describing jazz, but it's an essential trait for most B-3s. There's a flow, an almost drone-like layer of feeling and emotion that acts as a canvas for the other players. Stewart, the drummer, invokes much of the excitement with his restlessness and his constant shimmer. As a trio, these seasoned musicians are the proverbial still waters. There's a lot going on that you won't hear from the next room.

Goldings summarizes this unique feel and structure by revealing that "our approach has never been dictated by the 'organ trio' format but rather by our individual personalities." This is precisely right. Toy Tunes is one of those rare organ trio recordings where you can easily follow each musician through the track and keep the other two in the periphery. In other words, you can listen to each song straight three times and have three separate impressions. Despite the calming effect of the whole, Goldings, Bernstein and Stewart are often pursuing separate journeys--they're walking down the road together but seeing and feeling different things. This makes for a sound that begs you to crawl around inside of it.

The trio also specializes in intricate song structures. The first tune, "Fagen," is obviously a tribute to the famous Donald from Steely Dan, and it seems like a natural instinct to pay homage to another individual who prefers innovative song structures. While the majority of tunes are originals, with equal composing credits from each of the three, there are also knowing nods in the form of adaptations from kindred spirits such as Carla Bley ("And Now the Queen") and the title tune from Wayne Shorter. G,B & S is hardly an organ trio for beginners, but these gentlemen are a gift to those who want to think about their jazz as well as float along with it.

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