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String Trio of New York: Gut Reaction

When you think of a string trio, you anticipate chamber jazz, likely on the quiet side, with lots of air between the instruments and come-hither sonorities like ear candy.

Wrong. S3NY (as they abbreviate themselves) is dense and jagged and loud. John Lindberg strums and hammers (with the back of his bow?) the strings of his bass. Rob Thomas plucks his violin and makes it squeal. James Emery’s thrashing chords create thick washes of sound from his acoustic guitar. Effete this band is not.

String Trio of New York, founded in 1977, can legitimately claim to be one of the longer-lived ensembles in jazz. They have recorded 14 previous studio albums. Gut Reaction (fine title) is billed as “their first internationally available live recording.” It was taped at the Jazz Standard in New York by engineer Jon Rosenberg, who gets adequate clarity and detail in the stringed instruments, but with constricted stereo separation.

The program consists of three suites of new music. James Emery’s “Resonance Suite” is actually interspersed between two other full suites, John Lindberg’s “Nature, Time, Patience” and a work commissioned from trumpeter Dave Douglas, “In So Many Worlds (For Jaki Byard).” In the two works by band members, composed sections feel at least as abstract as the improvisation. Counterpoint is often tense. Calls receive argumentative responses. Tempos drift, slide to a stop, then lurch forward again.

Douglas’ three-part suite is the most fully realized piece on the album, developing from the contrapuntal careening of “Ecstatic” (with Emery and Thomas flying in fractured formation) to “Mournful” (a piercing lament expressed in a long, twisting lines from Thomas’ violin, lashed by Emery’s ferocious strumming) to “In Praise” (a graceful theme that lingers in the mind, traced in delicate lines by Thomas’ violin).

S3NY is intended as an interactive democratic entity, but new member Rob Thomas steals the show. He is a violinist of exceptional creative resources. He more than holds his own with split-second decisions in blistering collective improvisations, and he is riveting as a solo voice, with a rich, complex tone that can sing or shriek.

There is evidence that a violin renaissance is underway in jazz. Left of center is Billy Bang, whose Vietnam: The Aftermath was one of last year’s strongest albums. Right of center is Regina Carter. Her record label, Verve, clearly hopes to make her a star. Roving the wide-open spaces between them is Rob Thomas, who can do anything they can do, better.

Originally Published