Premier Guitar

Trio Energy

June 16, 2010
Consider the number three. A triangle is known as a stable figure. A table holds steady with three legs. Youngsters feel safe on a tricycle. Sometimes there’s no escaping a triangle, so strong is its energy. The Bermuda Triangle. A love triangle.

I find that playing a solo gig can be easier than playing a duo gig, surprisingly. But add a third voice and all is well. There are so many wonderful combinations of instruments that can be arranged into trio form, each one with its own uniquely creative possibilities. This month, we’re exploring the very traditional setting of guitar-bass-drums.

Trio playing can be one of the most rewarding experiences to share with fellow musicians. The musical conversations that take place within a trio can be surprising, stimulating, inspiring, neat, messy, light-hearted, thunderous, polite, or downright raucous. If we remember that it is indeed a conversation that is taking place in a performance, we stand ready to make some trio magic happen.

In a standard trio, typically, the guitarist states the melody, takes a solo, nods to the bass player for a solo, and then either takes the head out or gives the drummer a chorus or two before wrapping it up. Variations on that pattern commonly include trading fours with the drummer after the bass solo, or maybe giving the bass player the first solo.

Let’s zoom in a little on a fictional trio: The Deluge Three. It looks like they have “All the Notes We Know” up on the stand ready to play. The guitarist is playing a well-voiced chord-melody to state the theme, and skill- fully filling the held notes and rests in the melody with some brilliantly executed scales and re-harmonized chords. The bass player is hitting the roots in all the right places, as well as jumping on the chord tones in between, filling the time between melodic phrases with some dazzling and intricate arpeggios, and leaving no doubt as to the chord progression in play. The drummer is keeping the tempo right where it was counted off, even though he is busy filling in all of that space that he knows a trio is in danger of leaving.

Zoom out. What an exhausting conversation that was!

In a more experienced and thoughtful trio, each part becomes beautifully exposed, rather than smothered. Single-note lines by the guitar play- er are played over the simplest of bass parts, steadfastly keeping the time moving forward while the drummer concurs. They are listening, occasionally interjecting an agreeable statement with a kick or a slide. The guitar player confidently takes a breath, conscientiously considering his next phrase, knowing that the bassist and drummer are patient and on his side, nodding along and enjoying the story.

Just like a great film that requires you to think and feel and deduce, rather than tell you everything about each character and plot line, a great trio performance leaves listeners with implications of harmony by giving them just enough to go on without spoiling the fun of solving the mysteries for themselves. Just as the musicians need to trust each other in this form, they need to trust the listeners.

Listening to each other and responding appropriately in turn is the best thing we can practice, both in conversation and in playing jazz together. The trio format is a wonderful context in which to try out this exercise. The trust that develops can lead to more creativity in a trio. When Emily Remler was recording with Eddie Gomez on bass and Bob Moses on drums, she related to me these words of wisdom from Bob Moses: “Don’t worry, we’ll comp for you.” Indeed, listening to mindful drummers in a trio reveals a sense of melody and harmony in the choices they make.

I was in Boston-based, Japanese-born guitarist Tomo Fujita’s office recently, and we listened to a few tracks from his new CD, Pure (available from nimbit.com). Tomo’s blues roots meld nicely with a jazz sensibility. Throughout, the guitar lines are clear and tasteful, the bass (Will Lee) is simple, solid, and present, and the drums (Steve Gadd on the tracks that I heard; Bernard Purdie and Steve Jordan on other tracks) provide just the right fresh comments and grooves. The simple-yet-eloquent parts make a trio sound that works as a whole.

Other approaches you might want to experiment with include a more free-spirited musical experience in which the usual roles of time keeping, melody playing, and harmony defining get redistributed. This can be as exciting as a conversation with the best of friends that features profound metaphors, thoughtful wit, and exhilarating silliness. Things get taken up a notch. You’ll need to stay on your toes to keep your place. But in a generous gathering of musical minds, you’ll be allowed to lay out until you find your moment to speak up again. Listening makes it all possible.

Here is a short list of recorded trios to listen to and learn from. It’s hard to talk about jazz trios without thinking of our piano-playing friends, so I am including some piano trios here, too.

Pat Metheny: Bright Size Life; Jaco Pastorius, bass; Bob Moses, drums (ECM)

Jim Hall: Jim Hall Live; Don Thompson, bass; Terry Clarke, drums (Concord)

Emily Remler: Catwalk; Eddie Gomez, bass; Bob Moses, drums (includes some overdubbed parts but not on solo sections) (Concord)

Bill Frisell: with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones; Dave Holland, bass; Elvin Jones, drums (Nonesuch)

Mike Stern: Standards (and Other Songs); Jay Anderson, bass; Al Foster, drums (other musi- cians appear on selected tracks) (Atlantic)

Bill Evans Trio: Sunday at the Village Vanguard; Bill Evans, piano; Scott LaFaro, bass; Paul Motian, drums (Riverside)

McCoy Tyner Trio: Inception; McCoy Tyner, piano; Art Davis, bass; Elvin Jones, drums (MCA Impulse)


Jane Miller is a guitarist, composer, and arranger with roots in both jazz and folk. In addition to lead- ing her own jazz instrumental quartet, she is in a working chamber jazz trio with saxophonist Cercie Miller and bassist David Clark. The Jane Miller Group has released three CDs on Jane’s label, Pink Bubble Records. Jane joined the Guitar Department faculty at Berklee College of Music in 1994.
janemillergroup.com