Rating: 4/5It’s fair to say that the piano trio format is alive and well on the contemporary music scene. Browse the “new music” section of your local jazz record store—if you’re fortunate enough to live in one of the few cities that has one—and you’ll find discs from the likes of the Bad Plus, Jason Moran and the Vijay Iyer Trio, all vital, forward-thinking artists who mix together the styles of such masters of the format as Red Garland, Bill Evans and Chick Corea with rock ‘n’ roll attitude and occasional covers of both underground and mainstream pop tunes. College kids from Toronto have even interpreted Tyler, the Creator and Kanye West through the trio lens, under the self-deprecating name BADBADNOTGOOD. All of this to say that the North American jazz market is somewhat saturated these days with gifted, energetic 21st-century trios.
The Espen Eriksen Trio isn’t as well known as the groups mentioned above. They should be, though. The Norwegian ensemble, consisting of Espen Eriksen on piano, Lars Tormod Jenset on bass and Andreas Bye on drums, share some principle qualities with their more famous North American counterparts. They have developed an individualistic, well-defined group vocabulary. There’s a palpable chemistry in their playing. They even cover a couple pop songs (“We Don’t Need Another Hero” by Tina Turner and “Could It Be Magic” by Barry Manilow) on their sophomore effort, What Took You So Long. The main element that sets apart Eriksen and company from their peers is their relentless commitment to understatement and subtlety. If groups like the Bad Plus can be compared to actors who give relentlessly emotional, entertainingly melodramatic performances, The Espen Eriksen Trio is like those who communicate their meaning with a slight movement of the eye or a barely audible whisper.
Indeed, What Took You So Long is mostly mellow, but that doesn’t mean it lacks passion. Every note is played with an unyielding enthusiasm and total commitment to the emotional context of the tune. Whereas some jazz groups stake their musical reputations on improvising challenging, highly technical lines, Eriksen and his cohorts produce simple, folk-like melodies throughout. The emotional beauty of these strains is heightened when Eriksen and Jenset play them in unison, as on “All Good Things” and “Dusk of Dawn.” Eriksen keeps the repeated melodies fresh by frequently changing the chord progressions underlying them. This technique is particularly apparent on “Third Stop,” where Bye accompanies and supports Eriksen and Jenset’s melodic permutations with a loose, playful drum part.
The result is a record that is equally enjoyable for jazz aficionados and neophytes alike. The tunes and the solos are all relatively short by jazz standards. All of the songs sit in the slow-to-mid-tempo pocket, which gets just a little tedious by the end of the album. It would be nice to have at least one in-your-face barn burner in this set. But the trio’s understated handling of melody and rhythm keeps most of the record from getting overly monotonous. The Epsen Eriksen Trio have plenty of time in their careers to experiment with different tempos, moods and musical vocabulary. For now, it’s enough to simply sit back and take in this modest, minimalist offering.