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REVIEW | Chris Madsen "The Trio Book"

Chris Madsen The Trio Book JMarq Records, 2023.

by Jeff Cebulski | ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

In preparing to write about Chris Madsen’s new trio album, The Trio Book, I took a trip down Trio Lane. The postmodern jazz trio has, as its focal pivot point, the Bill Evans Trio, which revolutionized the identity of its players and is the crossroads that seemingly all current jazz trios must travel through.

Focusing on the saxophone trio, the evolution has fairly clear markers, starting perhaps with the initial idea of positioning the sax player with an exceptional drummer, for good or bad. Think Prez with Buddy Rich. The next two I have in mind, featuring Sonny Rollins and Lee Konitz, have the same drummer, Elvin Jones. Then I arrive at Joe Henderson, with Al Foster. Later, Branford Marsalis with Jeff "Tain" Watts and Joe Lovano with, again, Elvin. A decade further comes J.D. Allen with his man Rudy Royston. More recently, I have been intrigued by Chris Potter’s work with three different, energetic drummers.

So the first rule, I guess, is Have a Great Freaking Drummer.

But the Evans trio is notable for the emergence of the bass player as his/her own separate-yet-indispensable element, a soloist even among the others; the space between musicians widened, not necessarily physically, but in creating improvisatory room for expression. From Prez through Konitz, the bassist was there pretty much to keep the beat, not necessarily a relegation, just part of a traditional concept (Sonny Dallas, Konitz’s bass partner on Motion, was never satisfied with his work on it). You can begin to hear the transformation in the sax trio more distinctly on Joe Henderson’s State of the Tenor recordings with Ron Carter, who wavered throughout from being the beat keeper to a crucial instrumentalist.

Bouncing forward, for Joe Lovano, Dave Holland commands his own space in tandem with Jones, and Gregg August’s woody contributions more than hold their own next to the volcanic Allen. Potter is usually joined by Scott Colley and Larry Grenadier, two of the best.

In tandem with these trailblazers, Chicagoan Chris Madsen has crafted an especially fruitful and analogous relationship with perhaps the finest area rhythm section, bassist Clark Sommers and drummer Dana Hall. His last album, 2019’s Bonfire (reviewed positively by yours truly), featured that rhythm duo with pianist Stu Mindeman and presented one of the better concerts at the Chicago Jazz Festival, where one could see the pure joy Sommers and Hall have playing together. On The Trio Book, Madsen moves forward by eschewing the chordal element and letting the trio loose, so to speak, to paradoxically demonstrate their synchronicity.

Madsen, a keen student of jazz history, seems to have absorbed a whole encyclopedia of influences, particularly Rollins, though his arrangements fit neatly into the more postmodern approach of, say, Lovano. With people like Sommers and Hall aboard, it would be foolish not to let the established players rule themselves and prove they can evince that jazz yin-yang of individual/corporate.

What makes this recording even more interesting is Madsen’s choice of songs, which come from well-known composers but not typically found on others’ recordings. For example, the opener, Steve Swallow’s “Eidertown,” a quirky post-bop jaunt from a John Scofield ECM album, seems in retrospect to be tailor-made for this trio, as Swallow and Bill Stewart are a formidable duo to emulate. In Scofield’s place, Madsen puts a little more swing into his rendition, perhaps sampling something else along the way (I hear it but can’t place it); this version moseys while Scofield’s races. Sommers’ own prancing on bass is equally recorded, while Hall is behind them, commenting.

“Amethyst Secrets,” from the propulsive percussionist Omar Hakim, switches gears to something more melodic. Madsen strips the song from its more elaborate production to its essential parts, providing that “space” for his mates to riff in. “N.R.W,” the album’s only original, is also a milder, more pensive production, with Madsen quietly sounding like Paul Desmond playing tenor before Sommers takes off with a run that would have worked on Way Out West. This cut represents a more intimate level of the trio’s cohesion.

Freddie Hubbard’s “D Minor Mint” from Breaking Point follows. The original’s solid post-bop structure is matched here, with Madsen deftly mirroring Hubbard’s frenetic pace. An interesting choice, Joe Chambers’ “Mirrors,” is the most altered cover. On the original recording, Chambers and his friends create a classic post-bop swing event; Madsen again chooses to dig into the composition to pull out essentials, creating his own minimalist version that rides on the lovely melody. On this, Hall demonstrates why he is so respected, holding back yet punctuating, never getting in the way.

Crazy that a Wes Montgomery tune has never been played on a trio recording, but now we have “West Coast Blues” from Madsen, who replays the recognizable melody into the improvisation territory. Clearly the band had some fun, with Sommers on counterpoint central and Hall enjoying his revelry.

Chris Cheek’s “Granada” in this context becomes the closest thing to a Madsen/Coltrane morphing, a lower key exotic meditation at the end that upends Cheek’s more contempo jazz original.

Chicago jazz fans who agree with me on the quality of Chris Madsen’s music with his top-drawer mates will be thrilled to know that they will be playing an album release concert at the Epiphany Center for the Arts on May 10 and will be featured in the Sunday Late Night Set (10:30pm) at Andy’s Jazz Club from mid-May into June. Watching Sommers and Hall play together is always worth the admission price. You’ll hear material from The Trio Book and whatever else Madsen cooks up, always an exciting proposition. If you can’t make it, at least buy the album and revel in three of our finest.

Chris Madsen, The Trio Book. JMarq Records, 2023


Chris Madsen, tenor saxophone

Clark Sommers, bass

Dana Hall, drums


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