Tre Corda, as described by pianist Tim Ray in the liner notes to its bracing new CD, “Squeaky Toy,” is “a jazz trio without bass or drums, a classical trio that improvises.” These days, when jazz musicians turn to “classical” music, it’s usually as a model for avant-garde procedures: 12-tone or atonal pitch arrangements and free rhythms. With Tre Corda (Ray, trumpeter Greg Hopkins, and cellist Eugene Friesen), the interface is more mainstream. The models are Stravinsky and Bartók, with references to Kurt Weill, and even some backpedaling to the days of Strauss and Brahms.
In the case of “Squeaky Toy,” that means, among other things, Ray’s arrangement of three Bartók piano Improvisations for the trio, and a Sonata for Trumpet, Cello & Piano by Hopkins that’s Stravinsky by way of Miles Davis.
“I studied both classical and jazz in college,” says Ray in a conversation at an Inman Square coffeehouse. “My classical piano teacher gave me the Bartók Improvisations, and I thought, ‘Oh great, I get to improvise for my classical lesson!’ And then, of course, I looked at the score and it’s not improvised, it’s all written out.”
Nonetheless, a seed was planted. Two of the three Improvisations on “Squeaky Toy” (Opus 20, Nos. 5 and 8) include improvised passages, whereas the slower-tempo piece (No. 3), is played as written, for solo piano. But you’d be hard-pressed to discern the differences between notation and improv on first listen, so adroitly do the three players (who are all teaching colleagues at Berklee) adapt Bartók’s spiky melodies and rhythms.
“People have commented that it’s hard to tell when the composition ends and the improvised sections begin,” Ray says of the band. “I wouldn’t say that’s a goal, but I like when that’s the outcome. I like those lines to be blurred a little.”
All three Tre Corda musicians have extensive experience in various genres. Ray, besides being a valued accompanist for Boston singers like Mili Bermejo, Kris Adams, and Donna Byrne, also toured for more than a decade with Lyle Lovett. Hopkins is a highly esteemed composer and arranger, whose projects include a nonet based on a similar Miles Davis configuration. And Friesen is a former Paul Winter Consort member whose 2012 book, “Improvisation for Classical Musicians,” was published by Berklee Press/Hal Leonard.
Ray was inspired to create Tre Corda (literally, “three sounds,” from an instruction for pianists) by his love of classical music as well as his attraction to chamber-group sonorities. It was an alternative to the usual jazz trios and quartets he played with, a chance “to explore different compositional styles and different improvisational styles.” Also, he notes, “I wanted to play with a cello player, and I wanted to play with Greg Hopkins.” After the group’s first cellist moved out of town, he found Friesen — “a match made in heaven.”
The group’s first, self-titled album, which came out in 2003, led off with a suite of three Wayne Shorter tunes arranged by Ray in a modernist classical manner. And although the album had some very jazz moves, the method was set.
On the new album, Hopkins’s three-movement Sonata is alive with terse, short phrases of three-way conversation, and a lovely middle-section theme introduced by cello. Ray describes the piece, clearly beholden to the classical tradition in its harmonies and rhythms, as “60 to 70 percent composed.”
This approach also influenced the solos. In mainstream jazz, the sequence of chords — the “changes” — determine not only the form of the piece, but also the content of the solos, which the soloists work off of. Here, the band relies more on melody and rhythm — the rhythmic-melodic “cells” of motivic improvisation — and less on the harmonic form.
The compositional gambits allow for greater unpredictability. In Ray’s “Once Around the Block,” the standard jazz move of “trading” bars of four and eight, takes on a fresh color as Ray and Hopkins work off the headlong, suspenseful theme rather than chords. And the varied voicings — Friesen switching between pizzicato and bow, Hopkins playing mute and open horn while alternating jazz and classical attack, and Ray thinking orchestrally with his piano — make this trio sound like a much bigger band.
Even Tre Corda’s most basic templates are unpredictable. Ray’s “Waltz for Inge” is for his German-born mother, with nods to his émigré maternal grandfather, himself a pianist — an homage to the Straussian waltz tradition. But his mother’s reaction when Ray asked her about the piece was somewhat cool: “Oh, it’s nice.” And? “No, I actually really liked it . . . But it’s hard to dance to.” No wonder. The piece was written in 5/4 instead of 3/4. “It had the feeling of a waltz,” says Ray. Which is a very jazz thing to say.
The Northampton Jazz Festival carries the fest season past Labor Day with nightly events in area venues beginning Sept. 2 and ending with an all-day free concert downtown Sept. 6 with trumpeter Etienne Charles & Creole Soul, singer Champion Fulton’s quartet, trombonist Steve Davis’s quintet, saxophonist Seamus Blake, and more. . . . Jazz pianist, composer (and Brookline physician) Dr. Stanley Sagov brings his Remembering the Future Jazz Band, with special guest guitarist Larry Coryell, to the Regattabar, also Sept. 6. . . . The pan-stylistic violinist/singer/composer Edan MacAdam-Somer plays a free concert at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall on Sept. 15, with gleanings from her recent travels to Italy and Afghanistan, as well as pieces by Charles Ives, Thelonious Monk, and Alan Ridout. The program, billed as “One by Two,” will also feature duos with faculty members Ran Blake and NEC president Tony Woodcock.
Jon Garelick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.