Frank Carlberg's "Tivoli Trio" is one of those rare piano trio beasts that makes an immediate impression. It helps that Carlberg himself is a fascinating composer who has an immediately recognizable touch on the keys. He's also one of those players who's impossible to pigeonhole. His precise, lively piano playing seems informed by classical music, but he's a jazz dude through and through. There's no gimmick here – no pop covers and no bad boy posturing. Even within the jazz realm, Carlberg's style is idiosyncratic – he's clearly not a Chick / Herbie / McCoy / Bill Evans acolyte. Nor is he a Cecil Taylor-esque freebird. Rather, Carlberg seems to come out of a quirky modern jazz / proto-free jazz lineage that would include players such as Richie Beirach, Ran Blake, Steve Kuhn, and Paul Bley.
The jazz market, you would think, is completely saturated with piano trio recordings. Hundreds, or even thousands of piano trio recordings are released every year. I'd frankly like to see some of the statistics. Yet, this most durable and flexible configuration has proven, time and again, a most fecund medium for musical creativity of all sorts.
In the Tivoli Trio, Carlberg has surrounded himself with some of the most accomplished, individualistic, and daring musicians on the scene today. Drummer Gerald Cleaver is, simply put, a commanding presence behind the kit. Like Carlberg, he'snot a basher. He's equally adept at driving the band through uptempo, odd-metered passages (plenty of those here!) as he is providing the sparsest, pin-drop percussive coloration at the perfect moment. Bassist John Hebert is one of the most in-demand around – like Cleaver, he is all over this music, easing it forward or throttling it back as needed, playing melodies along with the piano, or laying down a throbbing groove with the drums.
The music itself is inspired, as Carlberg states, by childhood experiences at carnivals, amusement parks, circuses, and magic shows, and by the cinematic worlds of Fellini, Fassbinder, and Hitchcock (to name a few). There is a palpable nocturnal feel to many of Carlberg's compositions, and the trio successfully pulls off some musical sleight of hand on several tracks. 'Tricks,' for example, keeps changing direction just as you think it's settled into a predictable groove. The theme is brief, but not slight, almost childlike in its simplicity, but what follows is some very profound music-making from three deeply connected players. I love the heavily syncopated, bobbing, weaving rhythm of 'The Chase' – not quite Latin, not quite swing, there's an other-ness to it that reminds me a bit of Steve Kuhn's great recordings for the ECM label. 'Rumble Mumble,' by contrast, is a doomy-sounding rubato piece with free-jazz tendencies. 'Bill's Hat,' a feature for Hebert, is a funky piece with second-line leanings and a melody that gives a nod to Monk. 'Two For Tea' is a smoke-and-mirrors treatment of 'Tea For Two' that is full of musical puns, double meanings, and trapdoors. 'Tumbles,' a portrait of bumbling clowns, is anything but bumbling. The piece darts back and forth between a few different time signatures quite seamlessly, and sports another fine Hebert bass solo. I could go on and on describing the Tivoli Trio's music, because it's the sort of music that fun to describe – in the process of examining it and thinking about it, you uncover something else. Certainly, one of the year's most rewarding and enjoyable recordings in any genre.