The Constant is living proof that the piano trio, “the minimum complete jazz orchestra,” is still a dynamic, vital format. Granted, the band here is not exactly a piano trio. The leader, composer and auteur is the drummer, Jim Black. The bassist and pianist are Thomas Morgan and Elias Stemeseder, respectively-two of the most gifted young artists in jazz.
Bill Evans is most often credited with liberating the bassist and drummer within the piano-trio format. But Black’s ensemble takes it all the way, to a tripartite endeavor among equals.
Black has been on the leading edge of the progressive scene for more than 20 years. In person he is fun to watch because he is theatrical in his movements, a ballet dancer. On record, the drama and diversity of his percussion content still comes through.
When Morgan leads, on a piece like “Falls,” he is as melodic as a pianist, but in a darker language fraught with ambiguity. Stemeseder is a 25-year-old with the highly developed reflexes to play music as fluid and elusive in the moment as Black’s. In the liner notes Black says he “likes songs,” but his nine originals are unstable forms that aggregate to a suite like a network of hard turns and contradictions. There is a haunting motif that recurs across the nine movements, usually entrusted, however fleetingly, to Morgan. “Song M,” like most of these pieces, stops and starts over. Stemeseder veers from delicate treble ascents to ringing trills. He hovers, then plunges into hammering grooves. No groove lasts for long.
After the wild collective creativity of the suite, the last thing you expect to hear is Jerome Kern’s “Bill,” from the 1927 musical Show Boat. It really is “Bill,” all of its tenderness intact, but now with suspenseful hesitations and revelatory releases. Irregular, mutable lyricism is this trio’s chosen domain.