On Toy Tunes there could be more . . . play. More adventure.
The art of the jazz organ trio can be greasy funk or slippery subtlety, and Toy Tunes by Larry Goldings, Peter Bernstein and Bill Stewart sits gently and smartly in the camp of brilliant nuance. This trio has been around for decades and has recorded often, usually as The Larry Goldings Trio. They are fully empathetic, with Bernstein’s bell-toned jazz guitar plucking melody around the creamy tones of Goldings’ organ as the band rides on the time of Stewart’s cymbals.
All the leaders are fine composers, and we get four originals here (two from drummer Stewart). There are two modern jazz standards from Wayne Shorter and Carla Bley and two show tunes in a well-balanced program. What ties it all together is the sound of the band, which is always moderate and somewhat mysterious. Bernstein’s guitar stays clean and careful, while Stewart plays his polyrhythms with color and care. Goldings’ organ tone is never overbearing or wailing, but rather it stays in a modern hum that sounds like a contented cat, purring. Together, they are a model of seamlessness, but the there is also a bit of a sameness: the taste on every track is similar.
One of the most cracking tunes here, is a case in point. “Don’t Ever Call Me Again,” written by Stewart, starts with the drummer setting up a complex. syncopated 6/8 figure but with no bombast at all. Golding creeps in with a jabbing but fluid two-chord figure, and then Bernstein plucks the melody. Goldings’ solo comes first, and it is a brilliant, slow-developing investigation of the tune’s contours. Bernstein takes a more staccato, aggressive approach, but the performance, nevertheless remains one that surges and retreats rather than making a bold statement. And that is cool.
“Fagan,” by Goldings (and written as a reference to Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen) has a strong main theme, played by guitar and harmonizing organ as one, a set of rising and falling swung notes that release into harmonic contrast while Stewart nudges it all forward. It’s another catchy theme that lets the players explore, but the solos have a muted quality, as if the instruments were trying walk around house while someone was napping. Great stuff, but always moderate. And these are two of the more aggressive compositions.
The ballads are beautiful but even more mellow. “Calm” (also by Stewart) finds Goldings in a whispering mode, the organ shuddering with extreme quiet—almost a ghost setting of beauty. Bernstein plays a long, exploratory improvisation where his quiet guitar almost overwhelms the subtlety of the drums and organ. Bernstein’s “Lullaby for B” is a waltz that moves through gentle, pleasing harmonies but also invites the soloists to keep things moderate and tone-friendly. These are strong tunes, but the atmospheric sameness, while a lovely sameness, feels monotonous over the full program.
The standard “I’m In the Mood for Love” is taken at an unusually chipper clip, with the band using tricky substitute chords that also change up the harmonic landscape. Goldings’ fluid footwork on the bass pedals of his organ is particularly strong here, giving the tune a hop that launches it into a kind of old-school joy. “Maybe” is a tune from the musical Annie, and certainly not one that jazz musicians have assayed all that often. The trio takes it at a mid-tempo stroll, splitting the melody between Bernstein’s guitar and Goldings’ organ after a clever opening lick that, later, frames a Stewart drum solo on the out chorus. Bernstein plays some thrilling double-time improvisation here.
Wayne Shorter’s (sort of) title track, “Toy Tune,” also feeds the band some nice possibilities. The harmonies circle around like a perfect puzzle, and Goldings’ solo, particularly, just keeps inventing and inventing—you could hear it forever, though it never blazes. The band keeps things strolling and concise precisely where a touch of greater exploration seems possible.
The most intriguing track is a version of Carla Bley’s “And Now the Queen,” which begins with an eerie and atmospheric introduction by Goldings in which he varies his tone. After Bernstein enters with an ominous piece of melody, the trio launches into a collective improvisation that finds Goldings playing a thrilling set of roiling bass pedal runs in surges. It is a brief piece of cinematic suggestion, but “Queen” suggest the range of the Goldings/Bernstein/Stewart band when it chooses to get outside the tradition a bit more. All of these players are comfortable out there, but—at least on Toy Tunes—there could be more . . . play. More adventure.