Upper Left Trio

Sell Your Soul Side



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MUSIC REVIEW BY Paul Abella, Chicago Jazz Magazine, March/April 2006


There seems to be a new brand of piano trios brewing in jazz today. Groups that are willing to ditch the common ideas of the piano-bass-drums trio format and come up with something completely their own. E.S.T., Katahdin's Edge and The Bad Plus have been doing things in this vein for years now. Through studio trickery, slick arrangements of pop tunes or just plain inventive songwriting, these groups have been forging ahead, crafting their own language on their own terms. Sometimes it's uniformly great, as is the case with Sweden's E.S.T. Sometimes, it's shockingly cool, as is the case with the criminally unrecognized Katahdin's Edge. And sometimes, it's seemingly a case of the emperor's new clothes, as we've heard over the course of four albums with the Bad Plus.
Now we can add another trio to that list. The Upper Left Trio hail from Portland, Oregon, and their second album for Origin Records is the very interesting (and interestingly titled) Sell Your Sould Side. Much like the aforementioned trios, they deal mostly with original material. Also much like the previously mentioned groups, they deal more in multi-part compositions then with straight head-solo-head arrangements.
I can see the importance of doing such a thing. If your influences are more King Crimson than Nat Cole, your songwriting is going to reflect that; if you find yourself relating more to Radiohead than Rodgers & Hart, your songwriting is going to reflect that; and if you're going to try to forge ahead and create something new, the first impetus is to completely ditch the old as opposed to absorbing and growing with it.
And that's where I have an issue with these new kinds of piano trios. They've succeded in creating a new language of sorts. They've also succeeded, however, in building a stock of cliches as well.
After spending a morning hearing E.S.T., The Bad Plus and now The Upper Left Trio, I notice a lot of sameness in the proceedings, and it leaves me a bit wanting. But let's assume that you're not the music director of a radio station and a reviewer for Chicago Jazz Magazine. Then what would you think?
Digesting the album on its own, it has some merit - quite a bit actually. The piano playing is distinctive. You hear flashes of Keith Jarrett; you hear flashes of Bill Evans. But you hear those flashes in a quite different context than what you might be used to hearing. Bassist Jeff Leonard is content playing what seem to be composed lines throughout the course of the CD. Charlie Doggett, the drummer, sticks to the groove like white on rice. The tunes breathe well, and much of that has to do with the economy of his playing. And that brings us to pianist Clay Giberson, who guides this trio through these songs with a dyynamic touch and a sense for flair and timing.
As a group, their best efforts are on the songs that find them varying tempos and dynamics. When they're able to change things up they really seem to dig in and go for it. Songs like "Heads or Tails?" and "Not to Decide" really shine. Even "Reason for Change" finds then swinging, and swinging fairly hard at that.
Sell Your Sould Side is definitely worth a listen. It's albums like this that really make me look forward to future releases. You can tell they're onto something, and if they stay the course, they've got a bright future ahead of them.





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