Guitarist James Emery, bassist John Lindberg and violinist Billy Bang made up the original formation but in the years since then a number of violinists, including Charles Burnham and Regina Carter, have rounded out the group. Recently Rob Thomas has come into the violin position and it was the line-up of Emery, Lindberg and Thomas that played at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan on September 28.
The group performed for just under 90 minutes before a crowd of 40-50 people in a theater more often used for plays and art films. Mixing originals with covers by the likes of Trane and Monk, the trio’s performance was largely light with plenty of rhythmic punch thanks nearly exclusively to Thomas’ fast lines.
Ironically though, Thomas was the only member of the group who did not appear to have an original voice. His playing was technically sound but his solos lacked life and seemed to too rehearsed and too little of the moment. It was interesting at first when Thomas plucked his violin like a guitar but the novelty quickly wore off and the routine nature of his solos became apparent again. Still by providing the music with a pulse, Thomas was as important to the group’s overall sound as either of his comrades.
In contrast, Emery and Lindberg did anything but stay in the background as their solos and duets were the details on top of Thomas’ background. Emery’s speedy work on nylon strings drew from classical, folk and jazz traditions and was based on both single note lines and chords. Lindberg a Michigan native who has played with the likes of Anthony Braxton, Susie Ibarra and Sunny Murray- played in a manner that had little to do with the bottom and everything to do with the top. He mixed in straight and arco playing along with plucking in an imaginative manner. In some ways Lindberg sounded like Dominic Duval but whereas Duval’s playing sears the ears, Lindberg tickles them.
The combined result is music that is both accessible and forward-looking. Nothing played here would have been out of place as background music at a Borders outlet or as a "world music" selection in just about any record store. No doubt some in the audience took in the performance at that level. At the same time, the more experienced ear was bound to enjoy how hearing a violinist as a time keeper and the bassist and guitarist throwing down solos on top of each other with the ease and spark of dueling saxophonists. By using odd instrumental roles to create viscerally enjoyable music, the String Trio of New York create a sound that is unique and could be widely understood while still being deeply appreciated.
Perhaps this remarkable sound will soon reach a wider audience. Advance copies of the group’s upcoming live album Gut Reaction were available for sale at the Grand Rapids date and a listen to the disc shows the group creating the same outstanding sound on three tunes by Emery, three tunes by Lindberg and in a version of Dave Douglas’ "In So Many Words" suite. (You can hear a very different version of that suite on Douglas’ 2000 disc A Thousand Evenings.)
It is more than appropriate that the group should cover Douglas since the trumpeter has long made music with one foot in the mainstream camp and one in that of the avant, a feat this trio has also managed. Since 1977 The String Trio of New York has made excellent music but right now their sound seems to have gone beyond that adjective and into the realm of the brilliant.