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. 

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