There's no arguing that the best of the best in the piano trio field comes from the longterm units: on the younger end of the spectrum there's Brad Mehldau's group with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard, who replaced his long term predecessor in that chair, Jorge Rossy; and, of course, on the legendary end, there's Keith Jarrett's Standards Trio, with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette, who have been honing their artistry in the piano trio endeavor for nearly thirty years.
But there are the spontaneous one-off recordings and just-becoming-established groups that can produce knockout efforts without the benefit of years of sharpening the group voice. On the "one-off" side there's Boneyard (Origin Records, 2007), by Jim McNeely, Kelly Sill and Joel Spencer; or the surprising talent of relative newcomer Greg Reitan on Some Other Time (Sunnyside Records, 2009).
Pianist Dan Cavanagh's led the Jazz Emporium Big Band on his superb OA2 Records debut, Pulse ( 2008). For this sophomore outing with the label he's reduced the pallet to the piano trio for a disc that fits, probably, into the "one-off" category, and definitely into the "relative newcomer group" that, like Reitan's trio debut, has produced a surprisingly fine set of sounds without a long-established track record.
The set of seven Cavanagh originals and three covers—Chick Corea's "Matrix" and Frederick Chopin's "Prelude No. 4 in E Minor" and the traditional "Londonderry Air"—opens with the pianist's "Josephine," an ode to his daughter that features a craggy Mehldau-like rhythmic thread, playful and fluid trio interplay and an endearing melodic simplicity-abstraction dynamic.
There is a sense of a high level of improvisation within the frameworks of these tunes. Cavanagh's exquisite touch is on display on "Square One," a song given bounce and pop by drummer Joe McCarthy and bassist Linda Oh's ringing notes. "Bilder," clocking in at twelve-and-a-half minutes, is the disc's longest and perhaps loveliest piece—an urgent, in-the-moment example of what a first-rate piano trio can do when it taps into the flow of spontaneous three-way creativity, with Oh and McCarthy driving the music forward without a backwards glance.
Like Mehldau's music, Cavanagh's sound has a cerebral and sophisticated quality while remaining highly engaging, with some earthy shades brought in by his trio mates. On "Dark Ivory Tower" Oh's sharp and succinct solo, and her accompaniment throughout, acts as a foundation for Cavanagh's classically-informed piano, and his subtle and gorgeous touch. "Uncertainty" captures a tentative but hopeful mood with a melody that proceeds in fits and starts, while "The Good Life," opening with an intricate drum interlude, gives off a vibe of tranquility and contentment.
Cavanagh has produced one very good big band recording. Like Jim McNeely, his large ensemble may absorb the majority of his artistic life, but he shows, with The Heart of the Geyser, that he can put together a very simpatico piano trio for an inspired recording.