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OP vs. BE: Setting Up the Piano Trio

Trio vets discuss the pros and cons of different onstage configuration styles

Piano trio, BE style: The Bad Plus
Piano trio, BE style—the Bad Plus at the 2019 Winter Jazzfest in New York: (L to R) Orrin Evans, Reid Anderson, and Dave King (photo: William B. Gray)

Ever since jazz piano trios became a thing, there have traditionally been two principal ways of setting up the piano, bass, and drums on stage. The formation used by Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner, and others—often from an earlier era—has the pianist positioned at a 45-degree angle to the stage, with his/her back to the audience and the rest of the band. The drummer is in the middle, seated slightly behind the pianist, with the bassist standing stage right. This arrangement is generally called the Oscar Peterson or OP setup. The more commonly used approach today puts the pianist stage right looking directly at the bassist, who’s either in or near the crook of the piano, with the drummer stage left, a bit to the back. This setup, used most by groups that sometimes add a singer or horn section in front, is often called the Bill Evans setup. We talked with some veterans of the piano trio to sort out the plusses and minuses of each approach.

Jeff Hamilton has real bona fides to explain the OP setup because he worked in a trio with Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown; he uses the same stage layout for his own trio with pianist Tamir Hendelman and bassist Jon Hamar. He says that Peterson loved that arrangement because it made onstage communication easier. “Oscar wanted the hi-hat six steps from the piano leg,” he explains. “You’re close together. You can give quiet audible cues. Oscar would drop his left hand or raise one or two fingers and if you’re paying attention, you see it. The bassist can see the entire keyboard, so he can see if Oscar wanted a bass note for a substitution chord he was going to play.” Hamilton notes that Monty Alexander, with whom Hamilton and bassist John Clayton have played, does the same thing as Peterson: “He’ll point to a note, not necessarily to make the bassist play it, but to indicate what’s going to work with the chord.”

To Hamilton, the greatest advantage of the OP setup is the way it sounds to the players. “The drums are right there,” he says. “You’re not going to play that loud when the piano player is right there. You’ve got a natural acoustic sound. All three sets of ears are so close together that you hear the beat at exactly the same time, as opposed to the beat traveling across the bandstand and having to rely on a monitor.”

For most of his already impressive career, pianist Sullivan Fortner played with the Bill Evans setup. However, in 2018 he adopted the OP formation while working with the Clayton Brothers. That experience whetted his appetite to try it with his own trio; he’s been using it ever since. “It seems like acoustically the most in-sync thing, where you get the natural sound of the instrument without being blown away by amplification,” Fortner says. “It’s a bit more intimate. Everybody’s much closer to each other. Some pianists don’t like it because sometimes you have to turn around to see the drummer. I don’t mind it that much, especially if he’s right by me. I don’t have to do an Exorcist thing.”

Herb Ellis, Oscar Peterson, Jeff Hamilton, and Ray Brown
Piano trio (with special guest), OP style—OP himself, plus (left to right) Herb Ellis, Jeff Hamilton, and Ray Brown (photo by R. Morishima, Japan 1991)

Count Benny Green, who played with Ray Brown for four-and-a-half years, as one of those pianists who does mind the necessity of turning his head to see the bassist or drummer. “What the bassist and drummer don’t totally take into account in heralding the Oscar Peterson setup is that the pianist has to crane their neck throughout the performance, which is not the most comfortable feeling,” Green notes. “I’ve never had a bassist or drummer say, ‘Wow, you’re right, that must hurt.’ What I like about what I call the ‘quintet’ [Bill Evans] setup is that without craning my neck I can have direct eye contact, especially with the way that I angle the piano with a straight shot at the drummer and the bassist also in view.” Green does agree there are some positives about the OP approach: “I do like that I can turn to [the other musicians] and whisper. And I like that the drummer can see my left hand, which is impossible with the quintet setup.”

Orrin Evans, who plays trio with the Bad Plus and Tarbaby, prefers the Bill Evans setup mostly because of the visual communication. “I like having eye contact with my bassist and drummer,” he says. “I know this sounds strange, but I look at it like a fight, like I’m in a ring. It’s not that I’m competing with my drummer, but I like that the bass player is in the middle refereeing, making sure everything’s cool.” He also prefers to hear have the ride cymbal closer to his left ear than the hi-hat, which he admits is a very personal choice.

“It [the OP setup] works, but me personally having my back to the band, I don’t like the feeling of that,” Evans adds. “And I would be led to look to the left, which is the opposite of the audience. It’s like a whole party is happening that they’re not invited to. Looking at it and listening to it, I can appreciate it, but playing it is not my thing.”

Lest it sound like Green will never go back to the OP setup, he makes it clear that he respects his friends and peers who use it. “I’m grateful for my years with Ray Brown, who was always using that setup, so when I’m with either or both John Clayton or Jeff Hamilton, I defer to my elders,” he explains. “It’s understood that we’ll use that setup and I enjoy it. I don’t go into it bitching or anything. If I’m playing with anyone who’s more comfortable using the OP setup, I’m open to it.” Better get started on those neck exercises.

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