In planning his first live album after dozens of studio recordings as a leader or co-leader, septuagenarian bassist Mario Pavone wanted the music to capture some of what he heard on trio records fronted by idiosyncratic, genre-spanning pianists during the 1960s. The discs he focused on—Steve Kuhn’s Three Waves, Paul Bley’s Floater and Andrew Hill’s Smokestack are the first three he cites in his liner notes—understandably all boast strong, probing, woody bass work similar to Pavone’s approach on the instrument. But they also feature headstrong pianists adapting then-nascent advances in modal, “free” and hard-bop jazz to create their own postbop styling.
Pavone should be very happy with Arc Trio, which stands proudly both alongside those forebears and on its own kinetic terms. Choosing Craig Taborn as the pianist ensured that the trio’s lead instrument and harmonic force would share Pavone’s cerebral vigor for both the traditional and open-ended rudiments of postbop. And what better drummer than Gerald Cleaver, who has played with Taborn since the pianist was in college a quarter-century ago and has likewise partnered with Pavone on three previous discs and numerous live dates?
Thrown into the fray without rehearsal, the trio takes on eight old and new Pavone originals with relentless imagination. There are no ballads to speak of, and an absence of “sentiment,” save for the shared joy of split-second synergy as they mutually discover the next twist and turn. Pavone is a constant presence, thunking with the deep, woody sonority of a washboard at times, very reminiscent of Steve Swallow on contrabass. Cleaver responds with ballast and dynamism, carving space. Taborn showcases his enormous range—what a year he had in 2013. Some of the best tracks are tributes, including the opening “Andrew,” pressure-paced with elastic impressionism à la Mr. Hill; an “Alban Berg” (for the 20th-century Austrian contemporary of Webern and Schoenberg) that is probably the set’s most accessible track; and “Hotep,” in honor of South African pianist and educator Hotep Idris Galeta, with sterling solos from Pavone and Cleaver.
The result is challenging, probing postbop music that is as dense and alive and enveloping as a forest.