The Power of Three
By Cristofer Gross
The rule of three has been used in everything from philosophy to comedy. Aristotle identified three genres of poetry, while Shecky Greene identified three guys walking into a bar. The Romans, in characteristic overreach, even coined the phrase omne trium perfectum—everything that comes in threes is perfect.
In jazz, the rule of three takes the form of the trio, and this year it will be hard to imagine a more perfect union than the three-letter threesome ACS.
Pianist Geri Allen, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding are briefly putting their soaring solo careers on hold so they can finally tour together. Their short run to selected venues arrives at the Center's Samueli Theater for four shows on October 25 & 26.
Allen, born in Pontiac, Michigan, in 1957, has achieved jazz perfection in a number of trios, beginning with her 1984 debut, The Printmakers, with bassist Anthony Cox and drummer Andrew Cyrille. She has also collaborated with bass-and-drum teams Charlie Haden and Paul Motian in 1987 (Etudes) and 1989 (Segments), Ron Carter and Tony Williams in 1994, and Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette a decade later. In 2009, she teamed up with the Batson Brothers on the Hendrix tribute Three Pianos for Jimi.
Before Spalding shot to national prominence in 2011 with the first Best New Artist Grammy® ever given to a jazz artist, she made her recording debut as part of a trio. The Oregon native, born in 1984, had attended Portland State University on scholarship at 16, then Boston's Berklee College of Music on another scholarship. Months after graduation she was asked back as a professor, becoming the second youngest professor in Berklee's history. Just a year later she was thrilling Center jazz audiences in the Samueli.
Born in Medford, Massachusetts, in 1965, Carrington is the daughter of saxophonist Sonny Carrington and the granddaughter of Matt Carrington, a drummer who played with Fats Waller and Chu Berry. At 7, she inherited Matt's drum kit and quickly displayed extraordinary talent. Like Spalding, she was declared a prodigy. At 11, she became the youngest person to receive a scholarship to Berklee, and by the time she was 12, she had played with many jazz legends including Dizzy Gillespie.
She met both Allen and Spalding while they were in school. With Allen, who was then a music student at Howard University, Carrington was still 12, traveling with bassist Keter Betts to put on a clinic and perform with students at a club. That is where she and Allen first shared a stage.
In 2008, Carrington was running the clinic that visited Berklee. The recently graduated Spalding was there, and proved such a standout that Carrington invited her to play a gig with her and a couple of New York musicians. A few months later they joined Allen and saxophonist Tineke Postma for a concert in Israel. That was the first time all three played together. The next time would be on Carrington's Grammy Award-winning 2011 release, Mosaic, which also featured Dianne Reeves, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Nona Hendryx, Cassandra Wilson, Helen Sung, Patrice Rushen, Ingrid Jensen, Sheila E. and Gretchen Parlato.
Carrington admits she "hadn't done a lot of trio stuff" before ACS. She seems to be making up for lost time. Now, in addition to the current tour, she has worked with pianist Gerald Clayton and bassist Christian McBride on Money Jungle: Provocative in Blue, a reimagining of Duke Ellington's classic 1963 Money Jungle that featured bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Max Roach.
"I heard the record about 12 years ago and briefly thought about covering some of the songs," she says. Eventually she "was just compelled" to cover the whole album. As she did on Mosaic, Carrington included snippets of spoken word on Money Jungle.
"Using spoken words to relay your messages can be important in jazz, since most of it is instrumental, and you're leaving a lot to interpretation," she says. "If you add just a few words, and there's not a whole lot of spoken word on Money Jungle, your intention becomes clearer."
Has she found any new rewards or challenges after the sudden infusion of trio work?
"No, no," she says. "I don't really see a difference as long as the musicianship is strong. I think when you play with strong musicians, whether it's a trio or quartet or quintet, and it comes down to time for the solo, I'm just as excited and musically challenged whether it's a piano solo in a trio or a horn solo in a quintet."
And, since the drummer never gets to wander off while someone else is soloing, it's not like it's any more work.
"Yeah," she laughs, "We don't get to have those breaks."
Cristofer Gross is a frequent contributor to Center publications.
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