A Filming Session with Paul Dunmall

Last Friday TDE Promotions/Fizzle set up a recording and filming session at Sansom Studios in Wythall area just outside Birmingham.  It was trio session led by Paul Dunmall with bass player James Owston and drummer Tymoteusz Jozwiak.   It was an excellent session with really strong interaction between the three players with the added interest of hearing Paul play different saxophones and flute.  He played the first two tracks on tenor saxophone, the third on alto sax, the fourth on C-Melody sax and the final track on flute.    

The film will be out in the near future on the Fizzle Facebook Channel and when the date of the launch is fixed, we will let you all know.  There will also be a Cd of the session at a later date. 

Paul has been recording a number of  Cds at Sansom Studios recently and, as well as recording with musicians, such as Mark Sanders, John Edwards and Liam Noble, with whom he has worked regularly over the years, he has started playing and recording with some of the younger players on the Birmingham scene.  Last week’s recording and filming session with James Owston and Tymoteusz Jozwiak is a case in point.   On other session yet to be released he has recorded with trombonist Richard Foote, guitarist Steve Saunders and drummer Jim Bashford.  

Paul is at pains to point out how many excellent young players there are on the Birmingham scene and how readily they adapt to free improvisation. 

We would like to review here three of the recent recordings.  They are on FMR Records and can accessed at www.fmr-records.com.    From January TDE Promotions launched a monthly series with the name Paul Dunmall Presents at the Eastside Jazz Club with Paul selecting a different band each month.  We had three great sessions up to March, but, sadly because of the virus, we will have to wait till some time in 2021 before we can start the series again.  In the meantime, it is great that Paul is able to document his activity through the recordings at Sansom Studios, thereby creating a huge legacy. 

CD Awakening Expectations FMR Records  CD580-0520 

The group that plays on the Cd is essentially that which appeared at the first session of the Paul Dunmall Presents series in January 2020.  It has Paul just on tenor sax on this occasion, Percy Pursglove on trumpet, John  O’Gallagher on alto saxophone, Chris Mapp on electric bass and Miles Levin on drums.  Paul had wanted a pianist on the live session, so added Elliott Sansom for the recording.  This was, I believe, Elliott’s first experience of improvising freely and he immediately made his mark interacting early on with Percy, and then with Paul later in the title track Awakening Expectations, and concluding the track with a beautiful solo with a classical and almost romantic feel.  The track is totally improvised and proceeds through a series of collective passages that alternate with solos from the horns, piano and drums.  Each of the horn players take a solo, two in the case of Percy, and each one relates back to the collective passage just before it and leads into the next.  Miles takes a fine solo that at the end drops down in intensity that leads into the most abstract of the collective improvisations.  The collectively improvised passages have a lot of variety, from the early passage that has a New Orleans front line feel to it, to the very abstract passage just mentioned.  Others have a joyous and exuberant feel. 

Track 2 Playing The Virtues 

This second track is significantly different from the first with the collective improvisation going further ‘out’, that is becoming more adventurous.  It starts collectively with the three horns interacting with each other with the piano, bass and drums silent.  Percy is very impressive in this section.  After quite a long section the piano bass and drums enter and the intensity rises.  Then there is a passage, again relatively long, with just the piano trio with Elliott becoming increasingly confident in his solo.  John O’Gallagher enters interacting with Chris on the electric bass; Chris gradually takes over with a bass solo.  This becomes quite abstract and Percy adds another texture with a series of single note punctuations.  The saxophones then enter and this more abstract approach gradually becomes more intense.  A similar pattern is followed for the rest of the track; Elliott solos again, Paul plays a great solo, there is an early peak with an interesting collective riff which seems to be bringing the track to an end, but then John comes back in with a great solo.  The track gradually winds down to its conclusion. 

CD: A Songbird’s Temple FMR Records CD572-0120 

This is a trio album with pianist Angelica Sanchez, an American/Mexican pianist who was on a short tour of UK, Paul again on tenor saxophone, but also alto flute on the final track, and Mark Sanders on drums.  It’s a very different album from the Awakening Expectations album.  It is totally improvised, but the music breaks down into solos by Angelica and Paul over Mark’s inventive drumming.  Both take quite long solos on the five tracks, and their styles fit together well so that there is a good cohesion in the music.  It is interesting to note that, although Coltrane is clearly the major influence on Paul’s playing, he has the ability to develop extremely logical solos where each phrase leads seamlessly into the next, a feature of his playing that reminds me of Sonny Rollins’ approach.  Moreover, Paul rarely repeats himself; he assures me that he has his licks that he will sometimes repeat, but I am yet to work out what they are.  Angelica has a similar approach and the New York Times description of her having the ability to ‘seek out the lyrical heartbeat in any avant-garde storm’ suggests why she fitted so well with Paul’s playing. 

CD: The Feeling Principle FMR Records CD589-0120 

This album sees Paul Dunmall with three well established improvisers: Liam Noble on piano, John Edwards on bass and Mark Sanders on drums.   It is another hugely varied CD which brings out another aspect of Paul’s and the other musicians’ abilities.  What strikes me about the three tracks is that a structure to the improvisations appears naturally and organically in each of the tracks.  In the title Track 1, for example, some way into the piece there is a momentary pause and then Paul accompanied by Liam comes in with a very different gentler focus.  Initially it seemed pre-planned to me, but I have been assured that it happened spontaneously.  A similar thing happens in Track 2, Full Waking Trance, where about two thirds into the track Paul again takes the music in another direction with gentle support from the bass and drums.  There is also a series of arcs to the improvisations with each arc starting gently, building up in intensity and finally winding down; this adds coherence to the music.   

There are also a couple of excellent albums in the can yet to be released: a quartet album with Paul and Neil Metcalfe on flutes, Paul on alto flute and Neal on regular flute.  They are joined by James Owston and Tymoteusz Jozwiak.  Then there is a sextet album with Percy Pursglove on trumpet, Richard Foote on trombone, Steve Saunders on guitar, James Owston on double bass and Jim Bashford on drums.  They are joined on one track by Elliott Sansom on harmonium. 

Triptychs in the Ten Acres of Sound Event

It was wonderful yesterday to be able to hear live music with live musicians in a venue with an attentive audience. This was the Tritychs event organised by Fizzle as part of the Ten Acres of Sound programme run by Artefact, the cafe/bar on Stirchley High Street.

The pleasure came, however, came from much more than the simple pleasure of hearing live music after a long gap. The music presented was of a very high standard and featured some of the best young experimental musicians in Birmingham. And the music involved the interaction between live instruments and loops and sounds created on laptops, presenting a vignette of a kind of futuristic approach to contemporary music.

It was extremely well organised by Artefact and Fizzle with three venues all within walking distance on the now fashionable Stirchley High Street. Audiences were organised into three bubbles of eight people who went together from one venue to the next. I, for example, was in the bubble that went from Venue B, the Anjuma Lounge, to Venue C, Artefact, and finally to Venue A, The Wildcat. All three venues are attractive small cafe bars serving excellent beer as well tea and coffee. The precautions taken against the virus were also impressive.

I will describe each gig in the order I followed them:

Anjuma Lounge: Sarah Farmer and Annie Mahtani

This was a duet between Sarah (pictured here) on violin and effects and Annie on laptop. Sarah created very interesting lines and added effects by occasionally scraping the bow on strings of the violin. Annie underpinned Sarah’s playing with ambient sounds adding in various samples of bird song and other sounds from the Stirchley area. This was a superb start to the evening’s music with some very special and unique music.

Artefact: Aaron Diaz and Chris Mapp

Aaron on laptop combined with Chris on bass and effects. What I particularly liked about this set was the way in which Chris’ lines on the bass were quite melodic and dovetailed really well with the wide ranging sounds that Aaron created in his electronics.

Wildcat: Georgia Denham, Anna Palmer and Andy Woodhead

Anna Palmer

A trio this time with all three focussing on electronic effects to create a stimulating range of sounds and textures. Both Georgia and Anna used their voices at times to add a new texture to the overall sound.

Each group performed three times with a different audience and it would have been fascinating to see how far each set varied from performance to performance. The musicans were clear that each performance was different.

Details of the full Ten Acres of Sound programme can be found at http://www.tenacresofsound.com

The Lost Venues Of Birmingham Part 2

I am very grateful to everyone who commented on my first piece about lost venues in Birmingham, see here.  I am particularly grateful to Rob Walter, Steve Bradley, Richard Sealey, Ray Butcher, Chris Young, Brian Homer, Dee Hawley, Tom Chapman and Bernard Lyons for specific suggestions of venues I had missed.  I knew I was bound to forget quite a few, and I hope to catch up with as many as possible in this second piece. 

I want, however, to emphasise again that I remain optimistic that when we arrive at the ‘new normal’ there will still be a range of venues putting on top class jazz in Birmingham.   

So here we go: 

The Mermaid, Sparkhill 

This pub, now demolished, was on the corner of the Stratford and Warwick Roads; in the 1960s it ran a series of gigs in association with Ronnie Scott’s London.  This was very important for me in that I heard Dexter Gordon there, probably in 1962 just before I went up to London University.  Dexter was in top form and this was a life-changing experience for me.  I remember Ronnie Scott was also there, so I imagine he played with Dexter.  I do remember Ronnie saying in mocking tones that they had to bring Dexter to see Birmingham. 

Odeon New Street 

This was of course for many years the main venue for touring rock acts and other big names.  Again,  this venue was important for me in that I saw my first live gig there in 1957: Bill Haley and the Comets at the height of the early rock ‘n roll craze.  There was a packed audience and they clapped along with every number so I hardly heard the band!  But I do remember the sax player, Rudy Pompilli who impressed me.  Years later when I first heard Illinois Jacquet I thought his playing sounded familiar.  I realised after a bit that what I heard of Rudy Pompilli in 1957 and on Bill Haley records was a more or less straight copy of Jacquet’s style.  Some of the jazz big names played at the Odeon: I remember the Duke Ellington Orchestra there in 1963 and much later a version of Weather Report with Omar Hakim on drums. 

The Opposite Lock 

This venue, just off Broad Street by the canal, is still there, but is renamed and no longer has a live music policy.  Back in the early 1980s it hosted Roland Kirk and the Mel Lewis – Thad Jones Big Band.  I was abroad, but did later on catch guitarist Kenny Burrell playing in a trio setting. 

The Custard Factory  

Birmingham Jazz used a room at The Custard Factory for a time in the 1990s; at the time the Custard Factory was a very fashionable club and had this small ‘black box’ which, when full, had a really good atmosphere.  There were some great gigs there: Bobby Previte with a young band Weather Clear Track Fast – I remember Bobby saying that they were ‘hungry to play’!  Then we saw Ellery Eskelin, Guy Barker and a wonderful octet led by Paul Dunmall featuring Keith Tippett, Paul Rogers and Tony Levin.    

The Rainbow

For a time The Rainbow, a pub on Digbeth High Street, was a really good and popular music venue and when Birmingham Jazz started to book some of the young UK bands that drew a young club audience, it was able to run one of the best nights at the music pub. Gigs with Led Bib, Trio VD and Sam Wooster were very successful

Julio’s Wine Bar in Hockley 

Julio’s Wine Bar was the home for Soweto Kinch’s Live Box for a time and I well remember a very young Shabaka Hutchings sitting in with Soweto. 

Ty’s Jazz and Spice 

Restaurant owner Ty is a great jazz fan and he created a unique setting for the music in this restaurant on the Stratford Road.  Bryan Corbett was a regular there and I believe he lived upstairs for a time.  At its best the restaurant presented top class jazz and excellent Kashmiri food including balti. 

K2 Restaurant Moseley 

A second Kashmiri restaurant with good food and excellent jazz often led by Tim Amann and his X-tet  

The Foyer at Symphony Hall (Café Bar) 

Although it is likely that the Friday 5pm sessions will continue when Symphony Hall reopens, the refurbishment of the entrance means that the former foyer can be considered a lost venue.  The very popular sessions have always attracted a wide-ranging audience and are one of the top musical events in Birmingham.  The sessions have been running for about 15 years or more.  Bryan Corbett played the first one and has played there regularly since; The Destroyers were regulars in their early days and Steve Ajao has also been a firm favourite, both with his bop groups and his blues group The Blues Giants.  Local bands led by Reed Bass and Delano Mills have been popular as has the final session before Christmas featuring the local big band The Notebenders. 

Patrick Kavanagh’s in Moseley 

After the Jazz Club Friday sessions at the Barton Arms and The Cannonball Tony Levin ran sessions in an upstairs room at the Patrick Kavanagh pub in Moseley Village.  These were very popular, especially with students from the Conservatoire jazz course where Tony was now teaching.  I remember a great session with Jean Toussaint and Julian Siegel sitting in with Percy Pursglove on bass and Tony on drums 

Ort Cafe   

Ort Café is another venue in Moseley; it’s a small art gallery which was supportive of the music, but the music stopped when management changed.  Drummer Tymoteusz Jozwiak ran sessions for a time, and TDE Promotions presented a few gigs, notably the Deep Whole Trio with Paul Dunmall, Paul Rogers and Mark Sanders, and from New York the Tom Rainey Trio with Ingrid Laubrock and Mary Halvorson. 

Glee Club 

This is the comedy club in Hurst Street which has a music programme as well as the comedy nights.  Birmingham Jazz used it for a number of gigs before moving on to other venues.  The smaller room worked really well and I can remember fine gigs with a group led by guitarist Lionel Loueke and a gig where Steve Tromans paid tribute to the Chilean revolutionary singer songwriter Victor Jara  


Acafess was a very popular club in Balsall Heath, the club to be at the 1990s.  I recall that Steve Ajao and Andy Hamilton played regularly there. 

Club Bebop 

Steve Ajao

Steve Ajao has run his Club Bebop at various venues round the city, most recently at the Hare & Hounds pub in Kings Heath. 

Student Run Sessions 

Students or graduates from the jazz course have always shown great initiative in setting up sessions round the city in pubs and cafes; these have usually involved a jam session as well as a band set.  Percy Pursglove and Andrew Bain ran some great nights at the Yorks Café near New Street Station before management decided the sessions did not work for them.  The Yardbird session mentioned in my previous blog was very successful as is its successor the Spotted Dog – still going strong up to the lockdown. Cogs run by saxophonist Chris Young worked well for two years, but I think the pub has closed. 

Other venues included The White Swan, The Brown Lion, the Bash Bar, the Jewellers Arms.  Now that the Conservatoire has its own venue, The Eastside Club, there is perhaps less pressure to find outside venues, but, as I say, The Spotted Dog sessions are very successful and popular.  There are also sessions at Cherry Reds and the Second Cup café, both in the city centre. 

PS How could I forget The Waterworks Club! This was the quintessential trad jazz club in a club that promoted folk on the Friday night and trad jazz on the Saturday. It had a great atmosphere and people often danced! Sadly the building was converted int flats some time ago.

The Lost Venues of Birmingham

The enforced closure of Birmingham’s concert halls, theatres, arts centres and clubs (a few are opening) leads to thoughts about other venues that have closed for good, either because the building has been pulled down, or the management has changed its policy.    

It’s good to look back and somehow keep one’s memories of some of the great music that has happened in Birmingham in venues, but also retain optimism about the future.  I believe that one of the strengths of jazz is that it can work in many types of venue and one of the keys to success in promotion of jazz is to place groups in the venue that is most appropriate to their music.  There are bands that work best in a club atmosphere, while others really need the vibe of an intimate concert hall.   

Let’s remember some of the venues that are no longer with us, or no longer operating as a venue: 

Adrian Boult Hall 

Cecil Taylor

This 500-capacity hall, situated in the Birmingham Conservatoire building in the city centre, was the main venue for Birmingham Jazz for many years and a centre for both leading British bands and touring international groups.  It had excellent acoustics and an intimate atmosphere for its size.  Particular memories are gigs with Don Cherry and Nu, Hermeto Pascoal Big Band, Django Bates’ Delightful Precipice, the Kenny Wheeler Big Band, a double bill of contemporary jazz and classical piano with Cecil Taylor and Roger Woodward, and many gigs by jazz course students (see also The Arena Foyer below).  The Hall was closed and pulled down as part of the Conservatoire’s relocation to the Eastside area of the city. Disadvantages were that it was just a little too big for the size of most jazz audiences and the loading in of the PA was a nightmare. 

The Arena Foyer at the Conservatoire 

The Arena Foyer was used for jazz students’ Performance Platform sessions and final recitals.  I have warm memories of many student sessions there.  If I have to pick out one, it would be Dan Nicholls’ brilliant final recital.   

The Strathallan Hotel 

Abdullah Ibrahim

A large suite in the Strath, as it was always called, served as the home for Birmingham Jazz for many years from the early 1980s up to 1987.  It was a large room with a bar, quite wide that made it very suitable for gigs attracting a varying size of audience; it could expand to hold up to 300, but could also be made intimate for a small audience.  Particular memories were of the annual concert with Stan Tracey that opened the season in the autumn, a wonderful duo between Abdullah Ibrahim and Carlos Ward and a concert with David Murray, Johnny Dyani and Steve McCall. The hotel decided to expand its restaurant cutting the size of the suite used for the jazz.  One description was that it now looked like a Turkish brothel (I can’t comment due to lack of experience) and it certainly was no longer workable for live music.  However, Sunday lunchtime sessions continued in the Strathallan bar for many more years, see below. 

The Grand Hotel 

Johnny Griffin

The prestigious city-centre hotel had two rooms suitable for live music, one larger than the other, and these served as the main venues for Birmingham Jazz in its first years from 1976.  A very special memory is of a gig with Art Pepper, in 1978 or 1979.  Birmingham Jazz moved in the early 1980s to the Strathallan Hotel, but returned to the Grand Hotel in the mid 1980s for a few gigs, one with the Humphrey Lyttelton Band ,  another with a Johnny Griffin Quartet and a fantastic gig with Abdullah Ibrahim’s Ekaya group.   

The Triangle 

Loose Tubes

When the room at the Strathallan Hotel ceased to be suitable for live gigs, Birmingham Jazz moved to the Triangle, a small arts centre on the Aston University campus that had a flexible room for music and theatre, and a separate cinema.  The music room was very suitable for the more contemporary jazz that Birmingham Jazz was promoting at the time, and also had the advantage that with moveable raked seating it could be adapted according to the likely audience size.  Particular memories are the gig with Loose Tubes at the height of their popularity, and the George Russell Orchestra touring on the Arts Council’s Contemporary Music Network.  The Triangle was closed by the administration at Aston University and Birmingham lost a fine venue and cinema. 

The Bear in Bearwood   

Andy Hamilton

The Bear was the home for Andy Hamilton and the Blue Notes for many years and one where Andy would invite touring American musicians to join him.  There were many wonderful sessions with, for example, fellow saxophonist Scott Hamilton, trumpeter Art Farmer and David Murray, the latter session as part of the great friendship between Andy and Murray.  At that time Andy was being managed by Alan Cross and he also set up some gigs at a bar on the corner of the Hagley Road and Barnsley Road the name of which I forget – I have since learnt that it was Dirty Betts.  I remember seeing Joe Locke play there.  But eventually Andy and the Blue Notes moved to Corks Club on Bearwood High Street where the Blue Notes continue to play.  

The Barton Arms 

Tony Levin

This amazing and beautiful pub in Aston was the home for Jazz Club Friday, a session run by bass player Chris Bolton and drummer Tony Levin every Friday with a guest soloist.  These were powerful and memorable sessions with each week’s guest challenged by Tony’s great drumming.  Sessions with Paul Dunmall, Evan Parker, Stan Sulzmann and Don Weller were especially memorable.  Tony and Chris eventually moved the session to the Cannonball pub, see below. 

The Cannonball  

A great name for a music pub situated in Adderley Street in the Digbeth area of Birmingham.  It was opened as a jazz club by the Mackays whose son Duncan is a fine trumpet player.  The pub had a small upstairs room that worked really well for intimate jazz sessions.  The pub thrived in the late 1980s and 90s, and there were great sessions with local and national groups. Sessions with Don Weller were legendary in his drinking days with Don usually staying the night and enjoying the pub’s delights till early in the morning.  Eventually the Mackays moved away from Birmingham and the pub returned to its original non-musical policy as the Waggon and Horses. 

The Yardbird 

The Yardbird’s proximity to the former site of the Birmingham Conservatoire made it the natural home for a regular Thursday gig and jam session run by the students.  This was set up by Simon Harris and taken over by other students or graduates including Aaron Diaz and later by Sam Marchant, Ray Butcher and Chris Young.  A particularly memorable session was with the sax/trumpet quartet Brass Jaw who played an awesomely loud and exciting set to counter a noisy room.   

The Red Lion 

Gilad Atzmon

When Birmingham Jazz continued as a voluntary promoting organisation after the creation of Jazzlines, the Red Lion pub in the Jewellery Quarter became their home and they ran regular Friday night sessions.  I remember great sessions with Gilad Atzmon, Cleveland Watkiss and a debut session by young drummer Romarna Campbell with her own group.  Eventually Birmingham Jazz moved to the 1000 Trades pub, also in the Jewellery Quarter. 

The Strathallan Hotel Bar 

Bryan Corbett

For 13 years there was jazz every Sunday lunchtime from 12 to 2 and this was a session that attracted a wide-ranging audience, from committed jazz fans to those who enjoyed a pint and the chance to sample a bit of jazz.  There were great sessions with players from Birmingham and the West Midlands, Bryan Corbett, Chris Bowden, Ben Markland, Steve Ajao, Tom Hill and many others.  Eventually the Strathallan was forced to close the session as a result of financial problems in the hotel chain. It moved to the Fiddle & Bone pub, see below. 

Ronnie Scott’s Club    

This is a bit of a sad story in that it was initially very exciting that the world famous jazz club was setting up a branch in Birmingham, as a franchise run by Barry Sherwin and Alan Sartori.  It had many successes and survived for more than ten years, but eventually was forced to close as a result of financial difficulties.  It could have worked as a great jazz club, but gradually its musical policy moved away from jazz.  There were, however, some great sessions; I particularly remember a four-day residency with Elvin Jones and his Jazz Machine group and Sunday night sessions with Bob Berg, Joe Lovano and Christian McBride. 

The Fiddle&Bone 

Sara Colman by Ian Wallman

This canal-side pub was established as a music venue by two members of the CBSO.  It presented all styles of music with jazz at 12 noon on a Sunday and at 5pm on a Friday.  I always remember one particular Friday when Sara Colman played to a packed 5pm Friday crowd to be followed by the then unknown Jamie Cullum who attracted a considerably smaller crowd.  The story is always that it was closed as a result of complaints about the noise from flats opposite the pub, but the truth is that it went bust!    

The Old Moseley Arms 

Peter Brotzmann

A small upstairs room at the Old Mo’ was the first home for Fizzle, the organisation devoted to free jazz and improvised music.  There were some great sessions, the most memorable being one with the German free jazz saxophonist Peter Brotzmann playing with John Edwards and Mark Sanders.  After some time Fizzle moved to its current home in The Lamp Tavern.   

This piece might seem pessimistic with its focus on venues that no longer exist or no longer promote jazz.  But, in fact, I remain optimistic.  Birmingham may not have the perfect jazz venue, but it does have several venues that musicians enjoy playing in and audiences enjoy listening in; I’m thinking (in no particular order) of the Eastside Jazz Club, the flipped stage at Symphony Hall, the CBSO Centre, the Spotted Dog, the Lamp Tavern, the Hexagon Theatre at mac, the big and small rooms at the Hare & Hounds pub, the 1000 Trades pub, the Moseley Park for the Jazz, Funk and Soul Festival, The Jam House, Corks and others.  

The Saxophone Bass Drums Trio: Is Three A Magic Number?

In a recent statement Martin Hummel of the Ubuntu record label argued that the saxophone bass drums line up has become ’somewhat of a lost art form’.  He stated this in the context of a press release about a forthcoming release of the QOW trio with Riley Stone Lonergan on saxophone, Eddie Meyer on bass and Spike Wells on drums, due in February 2021.  You can read the press release and hear the sample track here.  Great to have Spike Wells recording again. 

I believe Martin is probably right, but the situation with live music during the pandemic may well be changing this.  In a recent blog (see here) I noted that online streaming has led to a prominence for duo performances.  Now that a number of venues are opening up under Covid-19 secure conditions, the trio in live jazz seems to be dominant.  The Vortex has six gigs coming up in the rest of September and into October; all of them feature trios.  Three are sax bass drums trios, one is a sax guitar keys trio, another is a guitar bass drums trio and, finally, there is a piano bass drums trio. You can access the programme here. I have no idea whether the programme will be able to continue under the new regulations announced yesterday. 

I would like to suggest that there is something special in threeness.  We have the beginning, the middle and the end, also birth, life, death.  Google tells me that ‘Three is the smallest number we need to create a pattern, the perfect combination of brevity and rhythm. It’s a principle captured neatly in the Latin phrase omne trium perfectum: everything that comes in threes is perfect, or, every set of three is complete.   

In my former field of Applied Linguistics Sinclair and Coulthard (1975) showed that classroom discourse is dominated by the three-way pattern of Initiation – Response – Feedback as in  

Teacher: What is the Capital of France? 

Pupil:  Paris 

Teacher: That’s right 

I like to think that there is something similar in trio settings in jazz, there is a freedom and the opportunity for spontaneity with a context that permits a considerable amount of to and fro interaction between the members of the trio. 

In recent weeks bass player Mark Helias has been putting out on Bandcamp a number of trio albums with Open Loose with either Ellery Eskelin or Tony Malaby on tenor saxophone, Tom Rainey on drums and himself on double bass.  He has also put out an album by BassDrumBone, the trio with Ray Anderson on trombone, Gerry Hemingway on drums.  The links are here, here and here

These groups are trios without a harmonic instrument, i.e. piano or guitar, and as a non-musician I have always understood that this absence of a harmonic instrument leads to a greater freedom for the players, but the implication that the music is somehow lacking in harmony has always puzzled me.  So I was delighted to read Helias’ comments on this aspect of trio playing; he says in the notes to the Bandcamp link: 

There has always been discussion of “piano-less trio” or “trio with no harmonic instrument”. I submit that, in the right hands, every instrument is harmonic. I suppose there are different interpretations of the meaning of the word harmonic, but I hear plenty of harmony in this music. 

Helias also discusses the special nature of threeness: 

Trios are equi-angular….a prime number…threeness. In a musical ensemble, going from a duo to a trio is an important dimensional leap. It adds perspective and depth of field; a musical tripod that can stand on its own. Is there a type of inherent symmetrical perfection in the trio setting? The Trinity of Music? It is a stripped-down ensemble where all the basic functions are covered, plus there is enough space to stretch yourself and your instrument. 

These trios led by Helias are brilliant examples of the possibilities of a trio setting.  Both groups are trios of equals with each player playing their role in the interaction.  No one instrument dominates and they are not groups with the saxophone or the trombone leading and the bass and drums providing support.   

These albums contrast with the equally brilliant Sonny Rollins Trio albums (e.g. A Night at The Village Vanguard, Vols 1 and 2, Way Out West) where Rollins is the dominant voice. He leads with the solos that reveal his ability to develop long improvisations that have great coherence and a strong narrative.  The bass players and drummers (Wilbur Ware or Donald Bailey on bass and Elvin Jones or Pete La Roca on drums at the Village Vanguard, and Ray Brown on bass and Shelly Manne on drums on Way Out West) play a supportive role – brilliantly of course. 

It is difficult to judge from the sample track by the QOW trio which model they are following.  Initial impression suggests that they are closer to the Rollins model, but I suspect that over the full album they will get closer to the Open Loose/BassDrumBone model.   


Sinclair, J.M.  and Coulthard, M. (1975) Towards An Analysis of Discourse   London: Oxford University Press.