Peter Erskine Trio: As It Was (ECM 2490-93)

As It Was.jpg

Peter Erskine Trio
As It Was

Release date: July 1, 2016

On paper, drummer Peter Erskine might have seemed like an unusual leader for a piano trio, but once the sounds of his collaboration with pianist John Taylor and bassist Palle Danielsson made their acquaintance with uninitiated ear canals, there was no denying their efficacy as a unit. Erskine followed a trajectory all his own to enter the ranks of ECM, having already established his reputation with the Stan Kenton Orchestra, Maynard Ferguson, and Weather Report before breaching ECM waters in sessions with John Abercrombie, Jan Garbarek, and Kenny Wheeler. The latter association brought him into fateful contact with Taylor and Danielsson, and their interactions as a touring band paved the way for the four albums featured on this Old & New Masters set. And so, when it came time to craft his first ECM leader date—1992’s You Never Know—the choice of sidemen was obvious. “Side” being the operative word here, for John Kelman aptly describes the band in his superb liner notes as an “equilateral musical triangle.” By then Danielsson and Taylor were both ECM veterans: the former via landmark recordings with saxophonist Jan Garbarek and pianist Bobo Stenson, the latter via another unorthodox trio with singer Norma Winstone and trumpeter Kenny Wheeler known as Azimuth. Says Erskine in those same liner notes of the band documented here: “The trio seems, by its mathematical and geometric natures, to offer the most possibilities where interaction meets form, and openness meets density.”

You Never Know

You Never Know (ECM 1497)

John Taylor piano
Palle Danielsson double bass
Peter Erskine drums
Recorded July 1992 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

With this first recording in the company of his European trio, Erskine made a lasting, if subdued, statement of intent. Its contours feel familiar, its moods even more so, and its overall feeling is one of peace and quiet passion. Considering the talent girding every corner of this triangle, it might seem unfair to single out one musician above the rest, but Taylor’s richly harmonic style is difficult to leave unpraised. Not only that, but his compositional contributions make up the bulk of a set awash in tuneful elegance. Take, for instance, the nine-and-a-half-minute opener, “New Old Age,” which seems to tell the story of a life in full circle. Taylor’s motive is the album’s heartbeat. Danielsson expands its EKG line and paves the way for Erskine’s airy considerations. This pattern repeats a cycle of experience, spinning the wheel of time and landing on “Clapperclowe.” This lively tune, softened by a montuno twang, features massage-like patter from Erskine. Another Taylor notable is “Evans Above,” a soulful Bill Evans tribute that sets the pianist dancing on clouds as he glides across landscapes past and present. Danielsson’s exquisite solo, flexible as a gymnast, is a glowing centerpiece. “Pure & Simple” might as well be called “Pure & Cymbal” for Erskine’s astute punctuations, each chiseling away at Taylor’s meteoroid on its path of sonorous fire.

Erskine himself contributes one tune: the sublime “On The Lake.” Its still and reflective sheen obscures a bass that moves like an evolutionary mystery beneath Loch Ness, even as home movies of children swimming, lovers canoeing, and friends gathering at the water’s edge flicker to the rhythm of the composer’s brushes. Three ballads by Vince Mendoza (whose tunes were heard to such great effect on John Abercrombie’s Animato) brings out the trio’s tenderest side, as in the 360-degree support of “Amber Waves.” And how can the empathic “Heart Game” not move us? It tugs and never lets go. If synergy is your bag, look no further than the trio’s closing rendition of “Everything I Love.” This Cole Porter joint is a window through smoke and time and practically bursts with effervescence at Taylor’s touch.

You Never Know would seem to have ushered in a new era for ECM, setting standards yet again for quality of recording, performance, and audience consideration. A dulcet and memorable date that lingers like the notes of a home cooked meal.

Time Being

Time Being (ECM 1532)

John Taylor piano
Palle Danielsson double bass
Peter Erskine drums
Recorded November 1993 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Once the lyricism of “Terraces” eases its way into our hearts, we know we’re in for a sublime experience on Time Being. Erskine’s sensitivity behind Danielsson’s equally considered solo, peeking above the horizon like the edge of a flock in silhouette, reveals sensuous technique through the cymbals and butterfly snare of “For The Time Being,” the responsive brushwork of “Phrase One,” and the dance-like movements of “Palle’s Headache” and “Evansong.” Yet it is Taylor, playing the piano as a blind man might touch a face, who makes this date the melodic gem that it is. We hear it in “If Only I Had Known,” sparkling blurrily in a visual language all its own. Taylor continues to take in every movement of leaf and shade in “Page 172,” which feels like a dream an old windup clock might have, a child’s automaton stretching its hands toward darkness. For “Bulgaria” he takes some thematic cues from folk music of the same. The Bobo Stenson feel on this track pays lovely tribute to the milieu from which he has grown. Danielsson paints a complementary impressionism, putting full heart into every brushstroke of “Liten Visa Till Karin” and in the fluid rustle of “Pieds-en-l’air,” ending a cordially realized set.

These images speak to us in indications, each a fragment of a mosaic beyond even the musicians’ comprehension. It is that same font into which all great improvisers dip, a limitless well that proceeds and recedes simultaneously, churning sentiment at the edge of a pond where inhibition ends and light begins. This is jazz of delectable subtlety that will embrace you, and another masterpiece from a trio that grew in leaps and bounds with every release.

As It Is.jpg

As It Is (ECM 1594)

John Taylor piano
Palle Danielsson double bass
Peter Erskine drums
Recorded September 1995 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

In this follow-up date to 1994’s Time Being, Erskine, Danielsson, and Taylor hone their salute to the Bill Evans and Paul Bley schools in their most transcendent short story collection yet. Each of these three narrators lends nuance to the arc. Taylor embodies a sense of perpetual motion quite different from that of Erskine, who in “The Lady In The Lake” evokes with his brushes a quiet train ride. Where the pianism is impressionistic and rounded, the drums are precise and crisp. So, too, in “Esperança,” which through shifting seasons reveals a brocade of sentimental journeys. Danielsson is more than the tuneful support of “Glebe Ascending,” though even in this album opener we get intimations of the interactivity to follow. His engaging filament runs through tunes like “Woodcocks” and “Touch Her Soft Lips And Part,” leaving a trail of footsteps alternating in charcoal and pastel. And what of Erskine? Look to “Episode” for your answer. This urgent piece hits the ground running and stumbles through city streets, whispering of metal and wind and skin. I submit to the defense also “Romeo & Juliet,” which like the classic play begins in innocence before culminating in Erskine’s tragic catharsis of a solo.

As It Is eschews the formulaic, instead kneading instruments and gestures into uniform dough. Just when Taylor seems to launch into an extended monologue, Danielsson rises from the deep to overtake it even as Erskine throws a commentative thread through every loophole. The resulting tumble is fluid and soft. Despite the breadth of its sweep, the music operates at a microscopic level. This is top-flight jazz, recorded, composed, and packaged with artisanal endearment.

1657 X

JUNI (ECM 1657)

John Taylor piano
Palle Danielsson double bass
Peter Erskine drums
Recorded July 1997 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

ECM’s fourth and final album by the Peter Erskine Trio, JUNI best realizes the balance between fullness and sparseness the three had been seeking since their debut. An underlying Bill Evans influence—lifeblood of everything this trio plays—is even more nakedly portrayed. “The forming of this trio was partly a reaction to a lot of stuff that’s out there,” notes Erskine. “There’s so much music that’s just thrown at you, and it’s loud and it has no real dynamic range and all the spaces in the music are filled up. I wanted to oppose that trend.” To that end, if not beginning, Erskine and company enable a delicate asymmetry in which transformation is a necessary condition of life. Whereas before they created epic swaths of watery goodness, this time they concentrate on a subtler array of themes and moods.

Taylor again contributes the most tunes and opens with his wavering “Prelude Nr 2.” Raindrops seem to fall from his fingers in an abstract introduction, dark though chambering a shining heart. “Windfall,” previously heard on Journey’s End by the Miroslav Vitous Group, plots a smoother, Brazilian-flavored journey. Supple flowers grow wherever Danielsson treads, and his rounded solo foils Taylor’s dialogue with Erskine to remarkable effect. “Fable” rounds out the Taylor compositions with a ray of golden light and feathered shadow evoked by him and Danielsson respectively, and strung by the restless air currents of Erskine’s brushes. The latter add paternal love to the plush emotional exchanges of Danielsson’s “Siri,” in which Taylor is the true standout.

Erskine himself counters with a twofer of his own, including the fragmentary and whimsical “The Ant & The Elk” (notable for his subdued yet popping aside) and “Twelve,” from which the album gets its title (jūni means “twelve” in Japanese) and which evokes the barest whispers of swing, maintaining purposeful ambiance even at its most straightforward. “For Jan”—by Kenny Wheeler, for a relative of the same name—reflects Erskine’s work with Taylor in Wheeler-led ensembles. From a skittering drum intro it unfolds into a sparkling anthem with gorgeous slides from Danielsson, who polishes the edges of Taylor’s keys.

Like the second hand of a schoolroom analog clock, “Namasti” (Diana Taylor) passes smoothly through the minutes with precision. Its face may be secular, but its implications are spiritual and take things for the illusions that they are.

JUNI thus brands a perfect yin yang onto Erskine’s résumé. He holds the world on a wire, eliciting a most sonorous gravitation. He is the sun of these sessions. May his light touch your heart.

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