The Art of the Piano Trio

t’s International Piano Day – the 88th day of the year! The piano was my first instrument. In the late 1950’s, my Dad purchased a Conover upright piano. I am fortunate enough to still have possession of this piano that was in my family since before I was born. When I was in 5th grade, my sister Linda and I both started taking piano lessons from Mrs. Smith (I wish to God I could remember her first name!). She was such a great teacher and was so encouraging to me when I was first learning to play – an important early musical mentor! Although my musical interests would take many twists and turns throughout my life, the piano is right at the bedrock of my musical roots!

Back in 2021, I was a bit surprised to discover that my absolute favorite album of the year was a jazz piano trio record. I found myself listening incessantly to Vijay Iyer’s remarkable album “Uneasy”. This got me thinking about the great tradition of the jazz piano trio – such a “tried and true” musical format! There is something absolutely indescribable about what a piano, a bass, and a drum kit can do with the right players and the right chemistry. In this spirit, I offer to you my list of my personal favorite jazz piano trio albums. I have decided to comment on a few key albums from this list which I think deserve greater attention. See my complete list below. 

Bill Evans – New Jazz Conceptions (with Paul Motion & Teddy Kotick) – 1957

From the very start of his career, Bill Evans brought a completely unique voice to modern music! Although you could hear his influences, he did not sound like anyone else. He is one of those rare musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Earl Scruggs or Jaco Pastorius who re-defined their instrument. After Bill Evans, improvisational piano would NEVER be the same, and his influence on music goes far beyond “Jazz”. His first solo album, “New Jazz Conceptions” has a different sound and approach than many might associate with his music. It’s a surprisingly muscular, quirky, and angular record. This album was the first of his many collaborations with drummer Paul Motian. In a way, Paul is the glue that ties up many of the diverse edges of my list of great piano trio albums. He is my favorite drummer of all time and is on about 40% of the records on this list!

Andrew Hill – So in Love (with James Slaughter & Malachi Favors) – 1959

Andrew Hill’s debut album is not as well know as the classic recordings he did for Blue Note in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Hill was equally well known for his amazing compositions as he was for his inspired playing. This trio outing was made up of only 30% originals – the rest were covers, yet he came right out of the gate as such a singular voice!  The approach to group playing that he and his trio executed on this record was so creative. Bass genius Malachi Favors would later go on to co-found the seminal avant-garde group The Art Ensemble of Chicago (one of my favorite bands of all time!). It’s quite marvelous to witness him here, a decade earlier, playing with such sensitivity, soul, and originality in counterpart to Andrew Hill’s playing. Drummer James Slaughter (who was Diana Washington’s drummer for years) also plays with such a unique dynamic, borrowing heavily from Latin influences. The music made here is quite special! 

McCoy Tyner – Plays Ellington (with Elvin Jones & Jimmy Garrison) – 1964

John Coltrane’s “Classic Quartet” is certainly one of the greatest improvisational ensembles of all time. The work that they did together between the years of ’62 – ’65 would move Jazz forward as an art form. The day before the group went into the studio to record their masterpiece, “A Love Supreme”, McCoy, Elvin and Jimmy wrapped up recording an album of Duke Ellington pieces.  It was the only time the three of them would record as a trio. The unmistakable musical chemistry they had developed of playing together in Coltrane’s group can be heard on this beautiful record. They added percussionists Willie Rodriguez and Johnny Pacheco to a few of the tunes to thicken up the groove. Although the album is in many ways so different from what they would cook up the next day on their groundbreaking “Love Supreme” sessions, we get to hear the group’s musical interplay at its peak on this album.  

The Necks – Hanging Gardens (Chris Abrahams, Tony Buck, Lloyd Swanton) – 1999

There are some who might protest that I am including this album on my list as a “jazz piano trio” album. On this record, The Necks make use of electric piano, organ, and percussion instruments as well as acoustic piano, bass and drums. They use overdubbing to create deep and rich layers of groove and ambience. This album has much in common with “In a Silent Way” era Miles Davis in feel and texture. Yet, at the heart of this Australian trio is improvisation between piano, bass, and drums. Hanging Gardens is a 1-hour long single piece. It is quite hypnotic and remarkable!  

Russ Lossing – Dreamer – (with Ed Schuller & Paul Motian)- 2000

Since Paul Motian is my favorite drummer ever, I did a search on his Wikipedia discography page in order to discover some recordings of him. It was through this process that I was turned onto this album. I had never heard of Russ Lossing before, but discovered him to be a singular musical voice – at once melodic, angular, pastoral, and abstract. His phrasing is crystal clear! I found his compositions to be equally as inspiring as his playing. “Dreamer” is comprised of 70% Lossing originals with a couple of Monk compositions and one Andrew Hill piece. The ensemble interplay here is quite inspired! Unfortunately, there is no song from “Dreamer” currently on Youtube.

Allison Miller – Boom Tic Boom (with Myra Melford & Todd Sickafoose) – 2010

I first became aware of Allison Miller when I discovered that clarinetist/composer Ben Goldberg was playing in her band. I went to see her at Ross Hammond’s performance space “Golden Lion” in Sacramento in 2016, just after she released her album “Otis Was a Polar Bear”. I was BLOWN AWAY by her playing and also her masterful compositions. I remember telling a friend in the LA area to go see them at their next stop on their tour, “I swear to God this woman is the next Mingus!” Allison put out this piano trio album in 2010 and it embodies just about everything I love about music. I remember seeing bassist Todd Sickafoose play in a small club with Adam Levy in San Francisco back in the late ‘90s. His tone is outrageously great!  I especially love the interplay and balance between the musicians in their approach to improvisations. 

Brian Blade, Danilo Perez, John Patitucci – Children of Light – 2015

In my opinion, Wayne Shorter’s quartet was one of the finest groups in all of jazz history. This band existed from 2000 until Wayne’s death last month. This was the longest lasting continuous group of Wayne’s entire career and their approach to group improvisation was quite transcendent! As is the case of McCoy Tyner’s “Plays Ellington” album, (see notes above) something special happens when players who have built up musical chemistry for years come together to create. What you get is so much greater than the sum of the parts! On this, their first trio album, the group play original compositions in addition to their version of Wayne’s “Delores”. I really hope that this group continues to make music together. The rapport here is one of a kind!  

Vijay Iyer – Uneasy (with Tyshawn Sorey & Linda May Han Oh) – 2021

Back in 2014, a friend of mine turned me onto a piano/sax/drums group from the ’00’s called Fieldwork. The primary composer in this group was pianist Vijay Iyer. Their approach to composition and group improvisation, and the fine line between the two, was quite inspiring to me. I started to follow Vijay’s music since that time. In the year 2021, smack dab in the middle of the pandemic, he released his remarkable trio album, “Uneasy”. It was my favorite album of 2021! I love his compositions and the way this trio plays in a seemingly telepathic way. This album also features drummer Tyshawn Sorey, one of my favorite contemporary Jazz drummers, who plays on several other albums on my list. 

The List

Bill Evans – New Jazz Conceptions (w Teddy Kotick & Paul Motian) – 1957

Andrew Hill – So in Love (w Malachi Favors & James Slaughter) – 1959

Bill Evans – Waltz for Debby/Sunday at the Village Vanguard (w Scott LaFarro & Paul Motian) – 1961

Duke Ellington – Money Jungle (w Charles Mingus & Max Roach) – 1963

McCoy Tyner – Plays Ellington (w Jimmy Garrison & Elvin Jones) – 1964

Vince Guaraldi Trio – A Charlie Brown Christmas (w Fred Marshall & Jerry Garnelli) – 1965

Paul Bley Trio – Closer (w Steve Swallow & Barry Altschul) – 1965

Chick Corea – Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (w Miroslav Vitous & Roy Haynes) – 1968

Keith Jarrett – Hamburg 72 (w Charlie Hayden & Paul Motian) – 1972

Herbie Hancock Trio (w Ron Carter & Tony Williams) – 1982

Keith Jarrett – At the Deer Head Inn (w Gary Peacock & Paul Motian) – 1992

The Necks – Hanging Gardens (Chris Abrahams, Lloyd Swanton & Tony Buck) – 1999

Medeski, Martin & Wood – Tonic – 2000

Russ Lossing – Dreamer (w Ed Schuller & Paul Motian) – 2000

Jason Moran – Facing Left 00 – (w Tarus Mateen & Nasheet Waits) – 2000

Marilyn Crispell – Amaryllis 01 – (w Gary Peacock & Paul Motian) – 2001

The Bad Plus – These Are the Vistas 03 (Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson & David King) – 2003

Chick Corea – Super Trio (w Christian McBride & Steve Gadd) – 2006

Keith Jarrett – Somewhere (w Gary Peacock & Jack DeJohnette) – 2009

Kris Davis – Good Citizen (w John Herbert & Tom Rainey) – 2010

Allison Miller – Boom Tic Boom (w Myra Melford & Todd Sickafoose) – 2010

Colin Vallon Trio – Le Vent (w Patrice Moret & Julian Satorius) – 2014

Blade, Perez & Patitucci – Children of the Light – 2015

Mario Pavone – Blue Dialect (w Matt Mitchell & Tyshawn Sorey) – 2015

John Zorn – Flaga (Craig Taborn, Christian McBride & Tyshawn Sorey) – 2016

Angelica Sanchez Trio – Float the Edge (w Michael Formanek & Tyshawn Sorey) – 2017

Vijay Iyer – Uneasy (w Linda May Han Oh & Tyshawn Sorey) – 2021