Vail Jazz column: Three’s a crowd … but not in jazz |

Vail Jazz column: Three’s a crowd … but not in jazz

Howard Stone.
Special to the Daily |

The old expression “two is company, but three’s a crowd” is right on when it comes to romance, but while duos make for fine romancing, it is a trio in jazz that makes for a harmonious relationship.

During the past 50-plus years, the instrumentation of the classic jazz trio has been piano, bass and drums. Why these instruments? Why not trumpet, trombone and tuba or, for that matter, three other instruments? Brass bands are great, but the aforementioned trio, even if populated with virtuosos, wouldn’t hold a listener’s interest for very long. Why? For most listeners — jazz or otherwise — technical virtuosity is compelling but not sustaining. What holds our interest is harmony, melody and rhythm.

There is no doubt that in the hands of a great player, each of these brass instruments is capable of being played melodically (yes, even the tuba can be melodic) and rhythmically (that was the main role of the tuba in early jazz). And yes, they can harmonize with one another, but the limitation of combining the three is that they are “one note” wonders.

Try as the players may, the best they can create is a three-note harmony. A piano, on the other hand, with its 88 keys and the player’s 10 digits, can do a great deal more because it is a chordal instrument and therefore can substantially increase the musical possibilities of a trio.

And while harmony is extremely important, the actual output of the trio (its sound) is determined by the texture of the sonic output of each instrument, or its timbre. This is the uniqueness of the sound that each instrument makes, even when playing the same note at the same volume as another instrument. So to create an ideal “trio sound,” one that will captivate the listener, you need to find the right balance between the timbre of each instrument, thereby creating a musical environment that allows the creation of a variety of pleasing sounds. Three brass instruments just won’t do it.

It should also be noted that one of the major reasons the piano trio has been so enduring is because of the remarkable musical flexibility of the piano; it is a percussion instrument and can be played very softly or very loudly, adding to the dynamics of the musical output of the trio.

Essence of Jazz

When you combine the grace, beauty and power of the piano with the textures created by the drummer’s brush work, explosive and concussive drumming, along with the shimmering sound of his cymbals and add into the mix the sonority of the bass and its ability to play a rhythmic foundation for the music, along with a walking bass line, you have the ability to create a palette of sound and the essence of jazz packed into a small ensemble.

There have been many successful jazz trios based upon other instrumentation, but almost always with a chordal instrument. Benny Goodman led a trio of clarinet, piano and drums. In addition, there have been many successful trios with the Hammond B-3 organ, guitar and drums, and trios with piano, guitar and bass, as well as vibes, guitar and bass. Probably the most famous “unconventional” trio was Sonny Rollin’s tenor with bass and drums.

In the 1940s, as the big-band era came to a close, small jazz ensembles started to take hold. There were many jazz trios generally composed of a pianist plus two. The pianist was the leader, and the drummer and bassist had well-defined roles — provide the rhythm and support the piano player while sustaining the feeling of swing.

However, over time the dominant role of the pianist began to wane and the piano trio started becoming a more democratic ensemble. It was the great pianist Bill Evans whose trios in the 1960s led the way by enabling the players to have a spontaneous musical conversation that allowed them to respond to one another, as opposed to having a fixed role in the music making.

Because of the interaction and musical dialogue among the musicians, the great trios ultimately develop their own signature sounds. Musicians say that requires having the “right chemistry.” One such trio is composed of Monty Alexander on piano, John Clayton on bass and Jeff Hamilton on drums.

The trio first recorded in 1976 when they performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival to great critical and public acclaim. They have been together off and on ever since. Each player is the leader of his own successful band and is committed to multiple musical projects, so they can’t always perform together, but this year they are touring in celebration of their 40th anniversary as a trio and will perform in Vail on Wednesday and Thursday.

When they come together, they have that special chemistry that allows them to always bring a hard, swinging sound with the right mix of soulful blues and unpredictability based upon an inventive and entertaining approach to the music. Alexander sums it succinctly: “What this trio represents are three individuals but we feel like we’re the Count Basie Orchestra. It’s a stampede. Look out. We’re coming to take the paint off the walls.”

Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of Vail Jazz, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Celebrating its 22nd year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz music, culminating with the Labor Day weekend Vail Jazz Party. Visit for more information.

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