With a jazz trio consisting of Steve Swallow on bass, a pianist with the last name of Bley, a horn player, and no drummer, it’s understandable that the new album Trios (ECM) by Swallow, pianist Carla Bley, and saxophonist Andy Sheppard might make some fans of dark and moody jazz think of the Jimmy Giuffre 3, the early-’60s trio which consisted of Swallow, pianist Paul Bley (Carla’s then husband), and Giuffre on clarinet. But while Trios has a similarly dark mood and palette, that’s where the similarities end.
With such sparse instrumentation and no percussion, Trios naturally has a stark and downbeat tone about it, one that will appeal to fans of the classic Jimmy Giuffre 3 albums Fusion (which featured two songs by Carla Bley), Thesis (which also featured two songs by Carla Bley, and was later reissued with Fusion as 1961), and Free Fall. But even with Steve Swallow in the same role, the songs on Trios don’t sound like anything Giuffre might’ve done.
Admittedly, most of that is because the saxophone doesn’t sound like the clarinet. But it’s also because Sheppard doesn’t play his horn like Giuffre played his. Giuffre’s clarinet was mournful, sad, and slow, while Sheppard can sometimes be a bit less moody, even a bit playful (relatively speaking, of course).
Similarly, Carla Bley doesn’t play as sporadically or as carefully on this as her ex did back in the day, though she does play as beautifully and as mournfully. The production on Trios is also somewhat different, as Trios is decidedly slicker and more polished sounding than either of the Jimmy Giuffre 3’s studio albums.
In fact, the only real constant is Steve Swallow, who understands now, as he did then, how to support such moody music when he’s the only one providing rhythm.
R TO L: Bley, Sheppard, Swallow (photo © Caterina di Perri/ECM Records)
But while Carla Bley would probably want to smack me for comparing this album to the ones made by her ex-husband oh so many years ago, and rightfully so, Trios does have one thing in common with the Jimmy Giuffre 3s: it’s moody, evocative, and ultimately beautiful music. The haunting and airy “Útviklingssang” sounds like something you’d hear in a movie when a detective is walking across a rain-slicked bridge just after his woman dies in his arms, while “Wildlife” and “The Girl Who Cried Champagne” aren’t as atmospheric as that, but are still beautiful in a “rainy day best spent on the couch with a good book” kind of way.
The only misstep is “Les Trois Lagons (D’Après Henri Matisse),” which is dark and slow for the first thirty seconds, but then gets peppy and playful for a while, only to take a sharp u-turn back to sadly mellow after a bit. It’s an odd and awkward juxtaposition that doesn’t fit with the rest of the album.
In the end, Trios by Carla Bley, Steve Swallow, and Andy Sheppard sounds as much like the albums made by Paul Bley, Steve Swallow, and Jimmy Giuffre as a pizza in New York City tastes like a pizza in Rome. Sure, it has very similar elements, and a similar taste but, ultimately, they’re both variations on the same delicious theme.
What do you think of this album (or my review of it)? Please let me know in the comments below.