11/20 Mark Helias Trio @ Cornelia Street Cafe
Mark Helias-Bass, Orrin Evans-Piano, Gerald Cleaver-Drums
The Mark Helias Trio was the rare ensemble that was both firmly rooted in the blues and jazz tradition, but also took the best of the classical world, the Downtown scene, and other modern music. The result was a sublime performance of Helias’ compositions (and one of Evan’s) that was both beautiful, intriguing, and swinging. For a trio that does not appear to work together regularly (as far as my internet research can tell), the group sounded amazingly cohesive, smoothly segueing from one solo to the next such that no space was given for the audience to applaud. Helias’ compositions were balanced among the three members and not bass heavy as I expected, making the trio a group of equals that acted as a tight ensemble.
The set opened with a composition of Evan’s and then featured 4 of Helias’ compositions. Each of the 5 tunes of the set were unique fusions of the sounds of the players. The first piece was more straightforward, featuring a solo by Evans reminiscent at times of McCoy Tyner, and swinging solos from Helias and Cleaver that opened the set nicely. The following pieces, all Helias’, were well constructed tunes that allowed for expansive solos by each of the players. There was a nice element of repetition of motifs and ostinatos that was reminiscent both of jazz standards and of minimalist pieces. One tune (I believe it was called Professor of Air Science, but as I was at the back of the club, had trouble hearing the announcements of the names of each piece) started with Helias bowing an atonal-esque melody and Cleaver playing with the ends of his brushes on the cymbals and segued into a lovely ballad that featured some superbly moving playing by Evans and a great bowed solo by Helias. Another song featured some arresting double stop playing by Helias that lent an air of otherworldliness to the piece. He was amazingly comfortable switching between plucking out a basic bass line, creating an intricate solo, bowing striking melodies, and playing thorny modern sounds. Evans and Cleaver were able to support him in this endeavor quite well. Evans had some hard swinging stuff, moving renditions of ballad sections, and some interesting modern comping and soloing that was played with a good deal of virtuosity. Cleaver was an attuned drummer, keeping things together and driving the pieces forward while providing thoughtful solos.
The trio has what I hope for in jazz ensembles- a basis in the tradition that defines the genre which is combined with other sounds of today to create intriguing new offerings. Often times ensembles can shift too far one way or the other-either sounding just like old bands and offering nothing new, or new to the point that they become a different genre. A band that can hold onto that jazz background while expanding its listeners’ soundscape is impressive, and last night the Mark Helias Trio was that band.