QUESTION # 4: What do you think it is about your trio that gives it its musical identity, what gives the group its unique sound, and do you think it’s your presence as a band leader, or do you feel that there is some sort of group concept?
How was the question received by the interviewees?
At first, I had worded the question to say “what do you think it is about your trio that makes it unique…?” However, I replaced “makes it unique” with the words “gives it its musical identity.” The reason for this change was to accommodate the interviewees who seemed to have significant discomfort in answering. Some seemed as if I was asking them to defend the existence of their trio. Of course the intent was to discover what their observations were about their trio, as well as what, if any, preconceived ideas were in play when forming the trio. The part of the question, “and do you think it’s your presence as a band leader, or do you feel that there is some sort of group concept?” was initially a follow-up question. But as time passed, this part became the main focus of question #4. For many of the artists, the question was well-suited because they are bandleaders. However, for some, I made the question either a hypothetical question or asked them to answer it in the context of the piano trio in which they were playing. All nine musicians ultimately gave a response I would consider to be direct and responsive. Fred Hersch was direct and responsive, but wanted to clarify terminology. He said, “Well…the group is kind of misleading because very few people can keep a trio working all of the time.” Jeff Hamilton turned the question around on me, saying, “Well, I would first ask you the same thing, and then let me add to that.”
What kinds of answers where given?
On the following page is a chart explaining who answered question #4 with which framework. There were three main frameworks into which musicians’ responses fit. Three out of nine musicians believed that the trio identity came from a group concept. Joanne Brackeen qualified her answer by saying, “It’s a collective concept, but…many times if you hear them play without me, they don’t have that element, so, I don’t know how to answer that….” Brackeen seems to acknowledge a duality in her groups. She acknowledges that there is an explicit group concept at work, but that the character of that group is, to larger and lesser degrees, contingent on the leader.
The other two respondents were in agreement about the group concept, but used additional frameworks to answer. Rufus Reid emphasized the importance of the musical experiences that each member brings:
Well it is a group concept, but at the same time I think the only reason we are able to do it is because we all have enough experience under our belts playing a lot of different kinds of things as sidemen.
Jeff Hamilton also added the importance of orienting the group according to its members. He said, “So, you want to assess the personality of the trio and their talents and gear the music towards the strengths of each trio....”
Another three musicians answered that it is both the leader and a group concept at work. Only Chuck Israels qualified his answer, saying, “Well, if the bandleader doesn’t want the group concept to emerge, then the bandleader can stop it from happening. But the bandleader can’t make it all happen by himself either.”
The last three interviewees affirmed the leader’s presence as being that which gives a trio its musical identity. Both pianist Eric Reed and Fred Hersch explained it by saying that they were not able to always play with the same personnel. Reed said, “Well, honestly speaking, I’m going to have to say it’s all me only because I don’t have a set trio.” Hersch further qualified his statement when he said:
So I think my compositions are one reason that the trio sounds distinctive…If the material is not very interesting, then it’s hard for the trio to be particularly interesting. So, that’s, I think that’s a large part of it.
Jeff Ballard, when speaking about the Brad Mehldau trio, interestingly said, “The band leader brings the group’s concept because he has chosen who plays, and who is playing gives the group its unique sound. So it’s kind of like a chain reaction.”
I find it significant that an equally balanced number of participants chose each main framework to answer question #4. This reaction may be due to the way in which the question was framed in that I, essentially, gave musicians two explicit options—the leader’s presence or a group concept— and that a third option implied both concepts. If the question had been open-ended, the responses may have differed significantly.
When looking at all nine responses, the main impression is that there is a group dynamic, and that in some trios the group concept is more at the forefront. In others, the leader, usually a pianist, brings the main vision to the ensemble and requires the bass and drums to conform to certain performance practices. What is most apparent is that these examples are not the only two options. In fact, they are probably rare in their purest forms. Instead, there is a sliding scale with near infinite incremental degrees of change between the two polar opposites. Perhaps the leader’s most consistent impact over the band is his or her choices in hiring musicians. This was what Ballard called the “chain reaction,” in that the bandleader sets in motion the musical events over which he or she later has no real control. But even the formation of a trio may not be as much of an intentional and conscious choice as one might believe. Peter Erskine commented:
…The easy answer, part of the reason it had my name on it was because I had more of a marketable moniker than the other guy. I had done so much touring, and had some measure of success in Europe, that it was easier to book the band that way. But because I had my name on it, it gave me license to address musicians and kind of form a stamp.
So in this instance, the leadership role began after the trio was formed. The “chain reaction” is one of circumstance and a multiplicity of desires, rather than a singular cerebral expression.
Stay tuned for Question #5 next week.