Pianist Dan Tepfer led an earlier trio through Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” on 2009’s Oxygen, so a version of Beyoncé’s mega-hit “Single Ladies” shouldn’t come as much of a shock here. The surprise lies in the way the band adapts the song to the piano-trio format, without any trace of irony. Bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Nate Wood give it a bottom-heavy second-line vamp. Tepfer stays true to the song’s melody, and he manages to wedge in some Monk-like comments between phrases.
The title Eleven Cages refers to 11 tracks and the constraints, or cages, that they can place around Tepfer’s trio. The cages in the album’s two covers (the other being “I Loves You, Porgy”) come from the lyrics, the leader explains in the liner notes. Changing tempi and time signatures are the challenges Tepfer sets on most of the disc’s originals, but the trio never sounds held back by the circumstances. In fact, Tepfer’s writing typically maintains an accessibility that complements the non-originals. “547,” which creates dizzying cross-rhythms as a group of notes are stretched over odd time, maintains emotional depth. “Roadrunner” is built on a spastic boogaloo groove, with beats added and subtracted without upsetting the hook or distracting Tepfer during an incisive solo. At the same time, the ballad “Minor Fall” evokes Paul Motian, largely because Wood spends most of his time on his cymbals, which effectively fill up the sound. Two improvised tracks are titled “Cage Free I” and “Cage Free II.” Acting more like brief interludes, they begin loosely but quickly find direction. In the end, the overarching concept isn’t necessary to enjoy this strong outing.