Alister Spence Trio

Not Everything But Enough
Alister Spence Music ASM 005

More than a bus(h)man’s holiday gig for The Neck’s s bassist Lloyd Swanton, pianist Alister Spence’ trio with percussionist Toby Hall has been around for two decades and is as representative of another variant of Australian improv as The Neck’s unique concept. A long-time force on the Aussie Jazz scene, the pianist has been a member of The Australian Art Orchestra, the Clarion Fracture Zone group and has collaborated with such non-Antipodeans as Scottish saxophonist Raymond MacDonald and Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii. Besides this band, Hall is also a member of pianist Mike Nock’s trio and saxophonist Sandy Evans’s combo among others.

Not Everything But Enough is appropriately titled, since it couples one CD of seven extended ruminations by the trio with a second disc of 21 [!] miniatures ranging from less than 1½ minutes to less than 4½, all concerned with diverse aspects of the threesome’s program. Despite the name, the three function as three sides of a triangle, with the bassist and drummer as prominent in the interpretations as the pianist. Especially on CD1, Spence adds prepared piano, samples and music box to his keyboard playing, while Hall vibrates rhythms from glockenspiel and percussion as well as his drum kit. Swanton sticks to double bass, although his playing isn’t as upfront as it is with The Necks.

Wafting tinkles from the music box come into play as early as the first and title track, balanced by tougher string rubs from Swanton and rhythmic pops from Hall. This exercise in minimalism shifts one-third of way through, as the pianist propels a swinging tremolo from the full-sized keyboard, solidified by double bass plucks. As the pianist’s vamp plays out like a ball of wool unrolling, drum reverberations underline the exposition. When the pianist recaps the theme, it’s now coupled with scrubbing inner piano strings and music box turns.

While fine-spun textures from Spence’s other little instruments and Hall’s glockenspiel are used to alter the melodic architecture of some other tracks, these attachments don’t preclude the band coming forth with mainstream-like tunes such as “In a Good World” and “Peculiar Orbit”. Propelling a powerful beat with a modal feel, as the narrative accelerates in pitch and speed the excitement level on “In a Good World” is cumulatively intensified until it's finally punctured by Spence assaying a secondary melody with a linear bent. “Peculiar Orbit” includes a rollicking, near honky-tonk keyboard solo and a pressured double bass thump. But the tune never abandons sparkle for dynamics, with the drummer keeping up a straight shuffle. Eventually a snappy climax is reached as the pianist confirms the theme both in low and high pitches.

Recorded almost two years earlier, the second CD confirms the flexible cohesion among the group members as well as concentrating on brief solo features. “Room 5: Skeleton” for instance defines the contours of a high-pitched singing bass line as it relates to an improvisations from the piano’s lowest pitched points. With both motifs struggling for supremacy it’s Spence’s upwards cascade which define the track. In contrast, Swanton’s buzzing and rubbing bass line onomatopoeically defines “Room 17: Hummingbees”. Lobbing scrubbed timbres back-and-forth backed by furtive echoes from the piano, only an occasional keyboard tickle stops the string rubs from taking up all the sonic space. That concept is almost mirrored on “13. Room 13: Slide”, though this track finds Swanton’s swelling and descending stops almost resembling the tones from an entire string quartet. Frequent but foreshortened shakes from Hall’s kit help define “Room 1: Low” which also showcases inner-piano string plucks and swift keyboard glissandi.

Overall the best representations of the trio’s in-the-moment unity are the successive “Room 3: Turning” and “Room 4: Isolate”. Spence’s low-frequency chording brings an almost romantic sentiment to the former as cymbal rubs and drum rolls follow behind. Limpid theme elaborations contribute to the mood, while a single ping from Hall links the track to the following one as the pianist’s low-pitched tremolo resonations bring a calming solemnity to the ending.

Ass good as some of these miniatures are, there’s more musical meat on the bone when the pieces are allowed to develop. That’s the advantage of CD1. Still for anyone intrigued by Jazz piano trios, both discs provide matchless programs from Australia’s most distinctive threesome in that idiom.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: CD1: 1. Not Everything but Enough 2. As True 3. In a Good World 4. Campuhan Frog Song 5. Time and Place 6. Peculiar Orbit 7. Hopeful CD2: 8. Room 1: Low 9. Room 2: Three Sounds 10. Room 3: Turning 11. Room 4: Isolate 12. Room 5: Skeleton 13. Room 6: Curious 14. Room 7: Busy 15. Room 8: Scratch 16. Room 9: Multiple 17. Room 10: Possibility 18. Room 11: Forward 19. Room 12: Arch and Dip 13. Room 13: Slide 14. Room 14: Dis-Connect 15. Room 15: Light Returning 16. Room 16: Pulse 17. Room 17: Hummingbees 18. Room 18: Eerie 19. Room 19: Gaps 20. Room 20: Bells 21. Room 21: Stretch

Personnel: Alister Spence (piano, prepared piano, samples and music box); Lloyd Swanton (bass) and Toby Hall (drums, glockenspiel, percussion)