Trio! / Oct. 14, 2005 / Clearwater, Fla. (Coachman Park)
Bluegrass? Jazz? Acoustic fusion? Trio!, the superstar group with bassist Stanley Clarke, banjo man Bela Fleck and violinist Jean-Luc Ponty -- virtuosos all -- could fairly be described as specializinBluegrass? Jazz? Acoustic fusion? Trio!, the superstar group with bassist Stanley Clarke, banjo man Bela Fleck and violinist Jean-Luc Ponty -- virtuosos all -- could fairly be described as specializing in a surprisingly organic blend of several distinct genres.
The all-star group demonstrated its musical mettle once again with a fast-paced, multidimensional set of music Oct. 14 at the 26th annual Clearwater Jazz Holiday, nine days before the final show on a well-received tour that began June 12 in Burlington, Vt.
Clarke and Ponty joined forces with guitarist Al Di Meola a decade ago for the "Rite Of Strings" CD. That disc and a subsequent tour always came off as a battle of high-flying string players, but the new group, thankfully, sounds more interested in playing with each other than at each other.
Fleck's "South" opened the show with a two-beat hoedown feel, as a long, lean banjo line was followed by colorful bass and fiddle declarations. At the tune's end, the melody was played four times, twisting slightly before coming to a sudden stop.
For Ponty's "The Legend of the Unicorn," a Latin-tinged composition penned expressly for this group, a lockstep bass/banjo groove was augmented with a bouncy violin melody. During Clarke's solo on the piece, he utilized his long, fingers and incomparable fretwork technique for flamenco-style strumming and then hard percussive slamming on his acoustic bass. Later in the show, during an unaccompanied segment, he employed a similar technique, pounding out a grinding blues groove built on his open E string. "It hurts like hell," he said about the resultant pain in his hands.
Fleck's beautifully complex "Storm Warning" -- "It's the hardest thing I could think of to write for these guys," he said -- was a highlight, along with the lightning-speed "Jouets," featuring Clarke on electric bass, and unaccompanied features for Fleck and Ponty.
For the jazz heads in the crowd, there was an artfully redesigned version of Clarke's "Song to John," a searching, up-tempo tribute to John Coltrane heard on the bassist's "Journey to Love" album, released all of three decades ago. If and when the group reconvenes next year for touring and possible recording sessions, let's hope they don't leave that tune off the list.
Trio!'s headlining performance came on the second evening of the Jazz Holiday, following performances by Miami-based Latin jazz flutist Nestor Torres; and the concert debut of ABCD, a group of super-talented teenage jazz musicians from all over the United States, led by 17-year-old Tampa Bay area bassist Billy Norris.
The four-day festival concluded with an emotionally charged set by trumpeter Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. It was the 16-piece big band's first performance since the group's members were forced by Hurricane Katrina to relocate to points all over the United States. A performance of "Just a Closer Walk With Thee," with Mayfield, alto saxophonist Derek Douget and trombonist Stephen Walker out front, and pianist Ronald Markham (CEO of the NOJO) walking from the wings to sub for Victor Atkins, was a crowd pleaser; so was "Indians," a tune built on infectious Mardi Gras rhythms. The Clearwater show was the first date on the financially ailing big band's fall tour.