Honey Ear Trio – Swivel – Little (i) Music

A piano-less trio which combines electronics, a post-bop inclination and a modern jazz outlook.

Honey Ear Trio – Swivel – Little (i) Music 616892358541, 54:32 [10/21/16] ****:

(Jeff Lederer – tenor and soprano saxophone; Rene Hart – acoustic bass, electronics; Allison Miller – drums, percussion; Kirk Knuffke – cornet (tracks 3, 6, 10))

The Honey Ear Trio is an improvisational jazz trio which sporadically and deliberately veers from typical jazz territory. The threesome’s sophomore album, Swivel, is well named. This nearly-hour long, 11-track outing unpredictably goes in directions where jazz typically doesn’t go. Honey Ear Trio consists of saxophonist Jeff Lederer, bassist Rene Hart, drummer Allison Miller plus guest cornetist Kirk Knuffke (who is heard on three pieces). Honey Ear Trio’s 2011 debut, Steampunk Serenade, featured saxophonist Erik Lawrence and the album displayed a modernist outlook. Swivel continues that viewpoint and Lederer (who joined Honey Ear Trio in 2013) fits right in. Each member of the trio has extensive experience in jazz, improv music and other genres. Miller heads a jazz group, Boom Tic Boom, and has backed singer-songwriters Ani DiFranco and Natalie Merchant; Lederer fronts the jazz ensemble Brooklyn Blowhards and is part of the Matt Wilson Quartet; Hart has worked with Julian Priester, Don Braden, Myra Melford and others. Hart, Lederer and Miller bring a fresh artistic distinctiveness and an imaginative, dynamic approach to 21st-century jazz.

Everyone contributes compositions. Miller wrote four cuts; Lederer and Hart each penned three numbers; and the program also has a Thelonious Monk cover. The opener, Miller’s “Arby,” has a heavy, distorted tone. Hart uses electronics to craft a grungy, digital veneer which sounds like amped-up electric guitar, which evokes hard rock music more than jazz. Miller has a hard-hitting rhythmic manner, and Lederer throws out tough sax bleats which punctuate the air. “Arby” is quite a blow-out, and immediately lets listeners know the Honey Ear Trio is not a sweetened treat, but can be harsh, energetic and up-front. Miller’s other three compositions are not as severe as “Arby,” and showcase the group’s advancing outlook. Knuffke trades horn lines with Lederer throughout the swiveling and aptly-titled “New Work,” which has a solid but changing groove; plenty of solo space for both horns; and Miller and Hart’s simpatico rhythmic efforts. “Lullaby” has an atmospheric, dream-like quality with a purposely low-paced tempo and a beautiful melody accentuated by Lederer and Knuffke’s ethereal horns. Lightly abstracted electronics lie below the arrangement’s foundation, but mostly “Lullaby” is a lovely, late-night retreat from the day’s hustle and bustle. The lively “Speak Eddie” has a post-bebop stance, where Lederer and Knuffke swap notes like they’re in a Blue Note recording session. Hart lays down a swinging bass backdrop, while Miller shows off her facility with brushes and cymbals, particularly during a lengthy drum solo.

Lederer is known for constructing jazz tunes which mingle unanticipated juxtapositions with archetypal jazz elements. The suitably-named “Changeling” has a shape-shifting persona, going from erratically-charged moments to quiet and subtle instances, like when Miller switches to delicate percussive effects and Hart supplies a prolonged and moving bass solo. Lederer proceeds from understated to dissonant as the arrangement goes from gentle to jarring and then back to gentle. The quirkiest and most unusual track is “Squeaky Toy,” which uses an actual toy at the start, which produces a squeaky sound which is then echoed by Lederer’s sax. Hart issues weightier and louder electronic noises which again bring to mind rock music rather than jazz, while Miller exhibits a strong percussive deportment which adds to the tune’s defiance. “Stanley’s Package,” on the other hand, hearkens to the late ‘50s when hard bop, bebop and post-bop were jazz staples. On his own recordings, Lederer often conjures Albert Ayler’s spirit, but here he’s more akin to Sonny Rollins or Jackie McLean.

It’s interesting to hear how Hart’s compositions mirror those by Lederer or Miller, in creative design or in variety. His three works share a contemporary vision as well as a sense of jazz history. The intentionally striding “Silent Stairs” is a superb setting for Lederer’s melodic playing, while Hart and Miller reveal their rhythmic interplay in suggestive ways, from Miller’s sparkling cymbals and splashed toms, to Hart’s swerving bass lines (Hart states the rhythms are based on the sound of young footsteps on stairs, hence the tune’s name). “Because” (no relation to the Beatles’ song) has a similar incline to “Silent Stairs,” with a mostly moderate demeanor, ample room for Lederer, and more of Miller and Hart’s rhythmic communication. “Because” is a memorable platform which illustrates the alchemy which can occur within a piano-less trio. The concluding cut, the unhurried and lyrical “Falling,” is analogous to when the lights are dimmed; the final drinks are polished off; and heads begin to nod toward pillows. It’s not quite time to tread to bed, but a tiredness can be felt. “Falling” is a perfect night-cap to wind down Swivel.

TrackList: Arby; Silent Stairs; New Work; Evidence; Changeling; Lullaby; Squeaky Toy; Stanley’s Package; Because; Speak Eddie; Falling

—Doug Simpson

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