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Saturday, August 13, 2011

Jazz Listening 102: Trio of Oz Opens My Ears (and Eyes)

A few months ago my drummer pal Nick Coconato handed me a CD to check out. On it he’d written the words Trio of Oz, and that’s all I knew about it. I had no clue that this disk was going to lead to a couple of significant realizations about how I listen to and evaluate music.

I could tell right away that this is a drummer-led band. The drums are quite hot in the mix for a trio with piano and upright bass, and this player has a great feel for the nice variety of grooves and lots of room to stretch. The pianist is strong too – someone who’s obviously absorbed the jazz language of Herbie and Chick, and who has a great touch and lots of chops. The trio has a very good bass player as well, with a well-balanced sound and excellent groove.

I didn’t recognize any of the music. The Trio of Oz doesn’t play any jazz standards or tunes that use standard chord progressions on this CD. I had a vague feeling that I’d heard some of the melodies before, but it wasn’t until I heard the last track that I actually knew the song – King of Pain by The Police, which is not exactly normal fare for an acoustic jazz trio album.

Somewhere along the line I found out that the drummer for this project is Omar Hakim, who I’d heard with Sting, but had never thought of as a “jazz” musician. I was spinning this CD in my car all the time and really enjoying the freshness of the tunes and the playing. I thought to myself that, whoever these other guys are, they sure sound great.

I finally Googled Trio of Oz and wasn’t too surprised to learn that the tunes are all arrangements of pop/rock tracks, since King of Pain is in the mix. It turned out that I was somewhat familiar with the songs by Coldplay, Death Cab for Cutie and Stone Temple Pilots. There’s also music by Alice in Chains, The Killers, Depeche Mode, New Order and a couple of other bands whose music I’m not familiar with.

But I was shocked to find out who the other musicians are. The pianist is Rachel Z and the bassist is Maeve Royce. Not only had I never heard of either one of them, but they are both women! It just never entered my mind that the other two members of this band are not “guys” at all. I like to think of myself as a highly evolved, egalitarian kind of guy – and it didn’t even occur to me that the other players in Omar’s trio could be women. Your Trackmeister hangs his head in shame.

Listening to The Trio of Oz has got me challenging a lot of assumptions I make when I choose what to listen to and how I respond to what I hear.

When I decide whether or not to attend a live gig or buy a particular recording, I usually do so based on my previously formed opinion of the artist(s). I’m much more likely to spend money on a “product” or experience that I can safely predict I will enjoy, according to how I’ve reacted to the particular artist or style of music in the past. But following this strategy severely limits the range of musical experiences I will have, because it’s fairly certain that a performance by an artist I know will bear many similarities to their previous work. I’m more comfortable spending money on a relatively sure thing; I don’t necessarily want to take the risk of “wasting” my precious resources on something I may not enjoy.

It’s very unlikely, for example, that I would have purchased The Trio of Oz CD based solely on the song titles or personnel.  And that would have been a real shame, because the music this trio makes is very satisfying.

So perhaps my criteria for choosing what music to investigate should change. Even though I have eclectic taste, I’ve gotten out of the habit of taking chances on new artists and genres that are outside my comfort zone. With the advent of internet radio, Pandora, Spotify, Lastfm and the many other online sources of streaming music, the risk factor is very low. All I need to do is open my ears.

If you’re experiencing a similar malaise, here’s a short list of contemporary jazz artists I can wholeheartedly recommend to you. I've tried to be gender neutral and ethnicity inclusive while leaving out some artists you have probably already heard. Let me know who you think I should be listening to as well.

Bass: Ben Allison, Avishai Cohen, Esperanza Spalding

Guitar: Bill Frisell, Mary Halvorsen, Julian Lage, Adam Rogers, Jeff Parker

Saxophone/Flute: Anat Cohen, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Nicole Mitchell, Greg Osby, Joshua Redman

Piano: Robert Glasper, Vijay Iyer, Brad Mehldau, Jason Moran, Danilo Perez

Trumpet: Brian Lynch, Dave Douglas, Roy Hargrove

Trombone: Robin Eubanks, Steve Turre

Drums/Percussion: Brian Blade, Antonio Sanchez, Matt Wilson, Steve Nelson

Vocal: Sheila Jordan, Mark Murphy, Cassandra Wilson

Ensemble: The Bad Plus, Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra, Trio of Oz

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