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A Quintet Of Great Modern Piano Trios

Led by the late Esbjorn Svensson, E.S.T. was one of the premier modern piano trios.
Tobias Regell
Courtesy of the artist
Led by the late Esbjorn Svensson, E.S.T. was one of the premier modern piano trios.

A typical jazz piano trio consists of an acoustic piano, bass and drums. The pianist usually serves as the leader, and often composes most of the songs the players perform, but that in no way diminishes the contributions of the bassist and drummer. Since only three instruments are involved, the thoughts and actions of musicians must be absolutely in sync with one another. Improvisations seamlessly flow together: A gentle ballad may sound like they're breathing together, while a fleet-fingered romp might sound like they're chasing each other.

Some legendary piano-trio leaders include Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, but these five selections highlight contemporary piano-trio leaders who keep the acoustic jazz tradition alive in fresh ways. Four of these five compositions are original tunes. You might be able to catch some of their influences as you listen, but all five have their own distinct sound.

For more entries in NPR Music's weekly Take Five: A Weekly Jazz Sampler series, click here.

A Quintet Of Great Modern Piano Trios


"Elevation of Love"

From 'Seven Days of Falling [Bonus DVD]'

Swedish piano trio e.s.t. was finally gaining much-deserved recognition in the U.S. when, this past June, pianist Esbjorn Svensson died in a scuba-diving accident. He was only 44. The group has always been forward-thinking: sometimes a bit on the experimental side, but always accessible and interesting. Some of its compositions are beautiful, deliberately paced ballads. Some are powerful, richly textured pieces. "Elevation of Love" opens with the piano being played from the outside and the inside. The drums soon add more texture, while the bass sounds bright; all three musicians complete each other's thoughts. It's hard to imagine e.s.t. without its leader, but the impact the three close friends made together is lasting.

Robert Glasper


From 'In My Element'

As a child, Robert Glasper tagged along to jazz clubs with his mother while she performed as a singer and pianist; they were also active musically in their church. Glasper incorporates many influences in his compositions, including gospel, R&B, hip-hop and even folk. He expresses all of these elements seamlessly with the remaining two-thirds of his trio, bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Damon Reid. The song "f.t.b." begins with a relaxed drum beat and a light touch on the piano that progresses into waves of sound before heading back into the original melody. It should appeal to longtime jazz and non-jazz listeners alike.

Taylor Eigsti

"Adventure One"

From 'Lucky to Be Me'

Taylor Eigsti is still in his 20s, but he's already established himself as the well-known leader of a piano trio. His original compositions are refreshing, and he also breathes new life into jazz standards when he approaches them. Eigsti assimilates many musical styles, from pop to classical to hip-hop to swing. He also leads larger groups, often enlisting the guitar of his good friend Julian Lage. This original composition finds him collaborating with master bassist Christian McBride and swinging drummer Lewis Nash.

Eldar Djangirov

"Sweet Georgia Brown"

From 'Eldar [Sony]'

Eldar Djangarov arrived in the U.S. from his native Kyrgyzstan at age 9. At age 11, he joined Marian McPartland on her NPR program Piano Jazz to showcase his formidable skills. His technique has been compared by some to that of jazz legends Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson, but he's developed his own style. Eldar's trio version of the oft-played "Sweet Georgia Brown" takes off at an almost dizzying pace and never slows down. Stalwart John Patitucci mans the bass, while Todd Strait keeps the drumming spot-on. It sounds like they've been playing together for years.

The Bad Plus

"Big Eater"

From 'These Are the Vistas'

It isn't really fair to call The Bad Plus a piano trio, as composition duties are divided among the three members; "Big Eater," for example, was composed by bassist Reid Anderson. The song opens with a quick drum intro before a heavy bass and driving piano jump in. The result is acoustic jazz, but you can hear rock influences, too. The Bad Plus is known for covering rock songs by Nirvana, Blondie, David Bowie and Aphex Twin, among others, and those covers contributed in part to the band's initial success. But the strength of its original compositions has established The Bad Plus as one of the freshest instrumental voices in the jazz world.

Copyright 2008 90.5 WESA

Shaunna Morrison Machosky