David Friesen: Circle of Three

The “Three” are bassist-composer Friesen, tenor saxophonist John Gross and pianist Greg Goebel. The “Circle” represents their intricately wound musical interplay, of course, but it’s obvious that there’s also a higher significance-this is music of spiritual journey, music that contemplates the kind of impenetrable mysteries that are often represented by circular images in philosophical and religious belief systems. But this music is also optimistic, robust and utterly unpretentious, fraught with the thrill of anticipation and the sense that the players are embarked on the joyous mission of setting and then solving challenges.

Some of those challenges are in the melodies. “Song for Tristan,” for instance, is taut and brisk, hinting at bop-like angularity but avoiding cliché. Friesen negotiates his way through the labyrinth with disarming effortlessness; Gross, in contrast, caresses, limns and rides the contours with a cyclist’s ease. Goebel is spikier: His percussive two-handed interplay occasionally breaks into unexpected, abrupt silence; he then leaps back into the dance.

There’s a non-macho athleticism to everyone’s playing that heightens the exuberance without detracting from the high seriousness that pervades. Friesen often seems to be exploring spatial as well as timbral and chordal possibilities, as he segues into and out of melodic and rhythmic constructions over the course of his solos. Gross’ tonal virtuosity is especially impressive in this sparse context: Ranging from meditative whispers through robust mid-range assertions to occasional shrieks of longing, his tone is consistently rich and nourishing, providing the ideal setting for his improvisational flights. Goebel, though exuding an almost childlike playfulness, negotiates even his most challenging runs with deftness, never showboating but manifesting his ideas with the immediacy and sureness of a master craftsman. This is music of virtuosity in the service of truth, not vice versa.