The piano trio is the most basic of jazz combos, but it is also one that provides an enormous amount of freedom and an infinite number of possibilities. The trios helmed by Art Tatum and Bill Evans were at the polar extremes of mainstream jazz, but who wouldn’t rank them among the greatest of all time? Today we have trios as diverse as Keith Jarrett’s and The Bad Plus, but they are so different that you wouldn’t play their music at the same dinner party.
One is tempted to say we are in a renaissance period of the piano trio, but we are always in a piano trio renaissance. What’s closer to the truth is this: Artists are constantly finding new ways to express themselves via the trio. It’s not innovation so much as it’s reinvigoration.
Brad Mehldau has been doing this since his 1995 debut. Like Evans and Jarrett, his strength has lain in putting his personal stamp on standards, with a bass and drums in support. “Ode,’’ his new album out March 13, is a departure from that concept. Mehldau has recorded solo albums of his own compositions, and he has inserted his own tunes in his trio outings before, but “Ode’’ marks the first time he’s devoted an entire trio recording to his own tunes. (It’s also the first studio album by his trio with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard in seven years.)
“Ode’’ traverses a wide swath of territory, its 11 tracks paying tribute to a cast of characters who include Mehldau’s wife, the late saxophonist Michael Brecker, and the underappreciated superhero Aquaman. The simpatico among these three men is extraordinary; they seem to have been born to perform with one another. How else could they pull off the changes of “Bee Blues,’’ a Monk-ish tune that requires them to alter the rhythm, several times, in the middle of phrases? Or transform a simple composition like “Twiggy’’ into something so complex and cerebral while retaining its joyful nature?
More amazing is Mehldau’s ability to have his hands act almost independently of each other - playing two distinct melodic lines - or swap their normal roles. On “Ode,’’ the right hand comps chords while the left hand plays the pretty theme - and then they switch again, and then they’re both improvising off the melody. None of this is easily done.
Vijay Iyer has been one of jazz’s most exciting pianists over the past several years. He flourishes in all sorts of settings, from solo to quartets, and he gets more interesting with each new record. His forthcoming trio record, “Accelerando,’’ also out March 13, ups the ante.
Iyer is equally adroit at composing and arranging the tunes of others. “Optimism’’ - an original that, in another life, could have been the melodic basis of a Radiohead song - builds and builds on the strength of a left-hand vamp juxtaposed with right-hand improv. It’s a simple enough structure, but Iyer wrestles for seven-plus minutes with its dynamics and harmonic possibilities.
More fun, and more surprising, is what he, bassist Stephan Crump, and drummer Marcus Gilmore do with Herbie Nichols’s “Wildflower,’’ the forgotten Heatwave disco song “The Star of a Story,’’ and - what the hell? - the electronica piece “Mmmhmm’’ by Flying Lotus featuring Thundercat. Bizarre, yes. Smart jazz, that too.
After taking jazz in new directions by blending it with electronica and hip-hop over the past decade, avant-garde pianist Matthew Shipp seems to be firmly ensconced with bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Whit Dickey.
“Elastic Aspects,’’ out Tuesday, arrives a year after Shipp, Bisio, and Dickey teamed up for half of Shipp’s stunning double-disc set, “Art of the Improviser.’’ On “Psychic Counterpart,’’ Shipp digs out a motif that evokes both the sophisticated swing of Ellington and the sing-songiness of children’s rhymes. But he quickly tells you this isn’t child’s play, with earth-shaking low chords and crisp, glassy right-hand swirls.
Shipp toys with us on “Mute Voice,’’ employing an uncharacteristically restrained - almost muffled - style, with bass and drums touched lightly but roiling nonetheless. Big, chiming sustained chords return on “Explosive Aspects,’’ on which Shipp sounds as though he’s trying to harm the poor piano. Yet the dominant theme here is minimalism - long passages elapse when only one or two musicians are playing, and not everyone partakes in each song.
Leaderless groups pose special challenges; democratic rule can lead to chaos in unsure hands. With Trio M, it leads to cohesion, trust, and empathetic spontaneity. Unlike with many trios, this is not a pianist supported by a bassist and drummer. On their new album, “The Guest House,’’ the three M’s - pianist Myra Melford, bassist Mark Dresser, and drummer Matt Wilson - are equal partners in the venture. They even split up the songwriting duties.
Indeed, it’s not clear who’s in charge - because nobody is - whether on the shuffling title track or the amusing, bouncing “Don Knotts.’’ (Who names a tune for Barney Fife/Mr. Furley?) On a tune like “Kind of Nine,’’ it feels like the authority is shared precisely in thirds - Wilson’s switch-it-up rhythms and Dresser’s harmonic bass line are just as important as Melford’s thoughtful explorations. Likewise, “Al’’ offers equal-opportunity chaos.Steve Greenlee can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @SteveGreenlee.