Concurrent with the release in February 2017 of Peter Erskine’s second Dr. Um band album came the release of his second Peter Erskine New Trio CD. In Praise Of Shadows (now out on Erskine’s Fuzzy Music label) is not necessarily to demonstrate there’s a Erskine record for every mood, but it certainly goes a long way to show that there are many different moods of Erskine himself.
The New Trio is an outlet for Erskine’s more meditative, intimate side, including the striking talent at piano, the Armenian-born Vardan Ovsepian. At electric bass is Damian Erskine, Peter’s nephew, who has for years made his own name as a musician.
In Praise Of Shadows comes on the heels of ECM’s 2016 reissue of the elder Erskine’s 90s trio records with Palle Danielsson and John Taylor, making comparisons of these two trios almost inevitable. But there are some built-in features that distinguish the New Trio from those twenty year-old recordings, such as the simple fact that ECM’s sterile, chamber-like production approach stands alone in jazz (not a knock on Erskine’s own production on In Praise Of Shadows, which is actually rather spotless and appropriate to the music).
Another main distinction comes from the personalities of Erskine’s trio mates, who have their own ways of expression. Damian Erskine is more than capable of exploiting the greater harmonic possibilities presented by his six-string Skjold electric bass and Ovsepian lends the lion’s share of songs as well as fresh, contemporary arrangements. He’s not even averse to slipping in electronic keyboards on a couple of occasions, barely noticed as they closely track his acoustic piano.
One such instance is a warmhearted reading of “Sukiyaki,” a chart-topping hit for Japanese crooner Kyu Sakamoto, and also subtly accentuated by Judd Miller’s whistle. “What If” is livelier, even featuring a brief synth solo from Ovsepian, but remains very much acoustic in feel. “Labyrinth” is aptly title with its labyrinthine motif that heavily involves both harmony and rhythm, but Ovsepian refined touch through those changes avoids piling on too much tension and then he spools out an original piano solo expressed in his own unique language. He leads on the gentle ballad “Marcheta (A Love Song of Old Mexico)” that boasts a gorgeous strain and Erskine on brushes does creative things with the measure.
The lone Erskine-penned song “Each Breath” is deeply spiritual right from the moment the leader commences with his graceful circular rhythm pattern and Artyom Manukyan’s cello along with Erskine’s marimba adds to the majesty. The wistful “Distant Blue” might be the one track that could comfortably reside on a classic ECM Erskine trio disc such as Juni, though it also serves to draw contrasts between Ovsepian’s classical, reserved approach and Taylor’s Keith Jarrett voicings.
The New Trio’s treatment of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” is unlike any other attempted on this song, as a darker harmony part was devised for this rendition at the same time as Erskine’s marimba is portraying the familiar theme. A new bridge provides the platform for Damian’s sumptuous, high register bass solo, followed by Ovsepian’s keen piano, all grounded by Erskine’s cool patter from his brushes.
If you want your jazz to groove, Dr. Um has your prescription, but it you want it to sooth even when the tempos aren’t slow, Peter Erskine New Trio’s In Praise Of Shadows will do the trick very well.
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