Trio 3’s free jazz polarizes the audience in a theater setting 

The Opposite of Melody

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For the uninitiated, free jazz can feel like The Emperor’s New Clothes. Everyone else seems to like it, so those that don’t understand just go along. At least they should, because when 30 to 40 people stand up and leave between every pause in the music, collectively, it’s downright rude. By the end of Trio 3 plus Vijay Iyer’s 90-minute set at the Gaillard, less than half of the initial audience remained — certainly not enough to demand an encore, making for an anti-climactic conclusion as the lights came up and people filled the aisles while the band still remained on stage.

But the dramatic progressive exodus shouldn’t define this concert, which had rich moments of sublimity and plenty of compelling musical exploration for the discerning listener. Ranky Tanky drummer Quentin Baxter introduced the band as the “top legends of this music,” before saxophonist Oliver Lake, bassist Reggie Workman, drummer Andrew Cyrille and pianist Vijay Iyer took the stage. They tuned for an awkward moment while a bout of contagious coughing spread throughout the Gaillard, setting up a perfect transition into the music, which began all at once. It felt like opening the door into an underground jazz club and stepping right into the heat of it all.

From the first moment, each band member improvised. This was discordant free jazz at its most extreme, with four people each playing something entirely different than the others. Iyer played without sheet music, attacking the keys from above with a distinctive vertical finger style that gave the illusion of spiders rushing back and forth across the piano.

It wasn’t until the third “song” that Lake stood aside and Iyer took what you could call a solo, while Workman showed off his unconventional approach to the double bass, brushing his hands rapidly over the shorter section of strings beyond the bridge. The song (and most of the evening) completely lacked melody, yet the band members managed changes with precision, showing off their veteran chops.

But at that pause, not even 30 minutes into the show, people stood up all over the room and walked out. That trend continued after each song and seemed curious — Trio 3 has albums on Spotify and live videos on YouTube. This wasn’t the debut of a new opera, where you truly don’t know what you’re going to get, so how were so many people disappointed? Perhaps it’s an indictment of the setting — avant-garde jazz is most often played in a club. The audience has a drink in their hand, and if they want to chat for a moment with their companion, that’s appropriate. In the dry, no-talking Gaillard atmosphere, this music just couldn’t hold the average listener’s attention.

But this was noise for nerds and jazz freaks, and the band pressed on, getting even weirder. The fourth piece had a few distinctive patterns, but soon gave way to five minutes of negative space, punctuated by Workman breaking the near-silence with a sharp “ding” on a xylophone, Lake blowing his saxophone like a train whistle, and Iyer sprinkling random piano tickling into the void. The sparse, pin-drop segment was broken by a unified return to the almost-riff, effectively using silence to emphasize convergence.

But it’s a general lack of convergence that defined this jazz. Miles Davis and John Coltrane went on half hour noise-making tangents, but the band eventually converged on a recognizable stanza. Trio 3’s music was like the freaky part of Miles Davis all the time, without ever establishing or coming back to a comfortable home base. And that’s fine — sonic space exploration by masters of their craft is highly enjoyable stuff, if you keep an open mind and relax into it, even when the music is generating constant tension.

After an hour, at 8:15 p.m., Workman became the first to speak, telling a story about composing music for his daughter’s production of Othello, before performing “Ode to Desdemona.” Lake’s sax sounded like springtime, lightening the mood in the room and setting the stage for the show’s highlight — the drum solo.

“I’m going to do something a little different,” said Cyrille, introducing his composition, “For Girls Dancing.” “I’m going to take you to the Congo. If you start to feel it, I don’t know what to tell you. You’re in a tight space. You can dance in your minds.”

If someone walked up on what happened next, they’d assume it was 10 conga and bongo players leading a drum circle in a jungle village. With heavy use of his toms, Cyrille mimicked the sound of a troupe of hand drummers through several parts spread over five minutes. It was a staggering feat that garnered the evening’s most enthusiastic cheers.

Next it was Iyer’s chance to address the audience. He paid homage to his three musical partners before introducing the third movement, “Adagio,” of his “Suite for Trayvon (and Thousands More).” He alluded to the Emanuel AME massacre, dedicating the slow, atmospheric song to “the thousands more.” The band then finished with another strong improvisational piece highlighted by monstrous, high-speed piano chords and a big cymbal finish.

Trio 3 takes pride in their egalitarian approach — they’re a band of equals, without a leader. Somehow, much of the audience at the Gaillard didn’t appear to expect that. This band plays like abstract art. Consider a Jackson Pollock painting — when there’s intention and some semblance of motivated form behind the creation, it’s spectacular. But even a less inspired Pollock is still a Pollock. So it goes with Trio 3. These are old-school geniuses. They’re each noodling away and only occasionally “locking in,” but when they close a piece with precise gusto and remind you that they’ve been aware all along of what was going on, it’s legend. If you see a piece of abstract art and it doesn’t make sense to you, clear your mind and come back to it from another angle. Or at least give another few paintings a look before you walk out of the museum.

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