Doug Simpson, Audiophile Audition

NPO Trio – Live at the Stone – Chant Records, 64:53 [3/15/18] ****:

(Jean-Michel Pilc – piano; Meg Okura – violin, electric violin; Sam Newsome – soprano saxophone)

There’s an opening moment on the NPO Trio’s 64-minute record, Live at the Stone, when it sounds like a classical trio is warming up. That notion is quickly dispelled as pianist Jean-Michel Pilc; violinist Meg Okura (who also adds electric violin); and soprano saxophonist Sam Newsome begin improvising through a 38-minute, six-part suite which pulls influences from several musical genres, including from blues to free jazz, Romantic classicism to atonal dissonance, and Yiddish and Japanese melodies. Newsome and Pilc have performed with Okura’s Pan-Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble. Newsome and Pilc have also worked together on the 2017 duo project Magic Circle. Due to considerable collective involvement, the trio shows an inherent musical connection which provides unity and convergence over the fully-improvised, hour-long live performance taped at The Stone in East Village, New York on April 3, 2016.

Although the structure of the six-part suite which launches the CD is split into separate tracks for the album, this is one, continuous work which should be heard from start to end. The melody recurrently repeated during the first six cuts is “Oyfn Pripetchik,” [English: “On the Hearth”] a famous Yiddish song by folk poet and composer Mark Warshawsky (1848-1907). Warshawsky’s song concerns a rabbi instructing his children about the importance of education and perseverance and references exodus as a remembrance of ancestral sacrifices which helped afford contemporary freedoms. Okura explains she is emotionally linked to Yiddish melodies, which are typically sad and happy at the same time, characteristically due to a minor melody with major chords. She states it is akin to a Japanese expression of happy/sad. Okura admits, “…sadness is absolutely necessary for me to experience true happiness in the future. Every time I hear Jewish songs, it reminds me of my childhood.” The six parts—titled “A Four Forty,” “Bells, Whistles and Sirens,” “Oyfn Pripetchik-ish,” “Travels” “Exodus and Emancipation” and “Pleading”— form a sometimes-precarious equilibrium twixt accord and disorder, consistently blending harmonic and melodic consensus with a feeling of the musical intersections nearing a breaking point. This symmetry and asymmetry generates an always-interesting tension heightened by the trio’s movement from avant-garde to classical, and from Yiddish to modern jazz. While listening to a 38-minute suite may seem daunting, it is not. There is often an affecting and lyrical straightforwardness which grounds the overall presentation, which offsets the various directions Pilc, Newsome and Okura travel during the suite’s other sections.

Live at the Stone concludes with two other improvised selections. The frequently discordant, seven-minute “Unkind Gestures” is based on a series of notes played as a run, borrowed from John Coltrane’s 1960 composition, “Giant Steps.” The threesome utilizes Coltrane’s notes without regard to the original chord changes or rhythm. There is an idiosyncratic interaction between Okura’s acoustic violin, Newsome’s soaring soprano sax and Pilc’s skittering piano chords and notes. Thus, the result is something wholly dissimilar to Coltrane. Yiddish and Japanese music coalesce on the 19-minute closer, “Yiddish Mama No Tsuki.” This piece sprang from two analogous melodies from two very different cultures: Jewish and Japanese. “My Yiddish Mama” is a 1920s vaudeville tune associated with Sophie Tucker. “Kojo No Tsuki,” [English: “The Moon over the Ruined Castle”] is from Japanese pianist and composer Rentarō Taki, who wrote the composition as a music lesson song without instrumental accompaniment in 1901. The song was included in a songbook for junior high school students. “Yiddish Mama No Tsuki” commences with Okura supplying a virtuosic violin solo. Pilc then enters and about four minutes in, the arrangement develops a light tango impression, as if the three musicians sympathetically decided to dip into Ástor Piazzolla’s oeuvre. The lengthy “Yiddish Mama No Tsuki” then shifts into sequences of group improvisation and over the extended course assumes a swinging sensibility which fuses modern and older jazz styles.

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