Liner notes for String Trio of New York: Gut Reaction (OmniTone 12202)

String Trio of New York: GUT REACTION

The bari player split.  He'd played long enough at this party on Park Avenue.  Left was a string trio of violin, guitar, and bass.  So, what the heck?  They decided to rip into some blistering, paint-peeling free improvisation.  The torrent lasted for an hour.  Spent and sweat-drenched, the trio came out of its trance to find the partygoers clapping.  The host of the party, some guy named Bill Murray was raving 'Man, that's exactly what I was lookin' for for this party.  Man, that was great!  I couldn't have imagined it better."  Running into Murray in the bathroom later, the guitarist James Emery thought, 'This cat is a total loon.  I mean, this cat is totally gone.' 

Despite having no idea who the Saturday Night Live star was, James was probably right.  But Murray's reaction was more than lunacy; he was responding to the special, pit-of-the-stomach, visceral, raw energy connection that live music can make with the listener.  The 'yeah" of a listening that comes spontaneously from somewhere deep within.  The famous 'aaaawwww" from an audience member on Miles Davis' 'Stella by Starlight" on Love for Sale.

That gig in 1977 was the String Trio of New York's first 'professional engagement," as bassist John Lindberg half-jokes, adding 'because we got paid."

Twenty-five years later, with String Trio of New York holding forth as one of creative jazz's longest-lived ensembles, it's appropriate that their newest recording — their first internationally available live recording — is Gut Reaction.

'For nearly as long as we've been playing, there's something that happens when we play live that we just can't get it in the studio," explains James.  'We always try our best when we're in a studio, but there's something that happens when we play live in front of people."  That 'something" is vividly captured on this recording, recorded live over three nights to thrilled audiences at the Jazz Standard in New York.  The band calls it 'Just goin' for it."

Gut Reaction is a first on at least two other counts as well. 

It is S3NY's first recording with its newest member, violinist Rob Thomas, who is an active freelancer in New York, playing with the Big Apple Circus and the Mahavishnu Project, among others.  Joining the String Trio is a dream come true for Rob, who heard the group's 1979 debut First String while still living and playing in his native Portland, Oregon.  Recalls Rob, 'I was fascinated by the group and the concept and the playing and thought, 'Gee, I'd like to have that gig someday.'" 

Another first for Gut Reaction is the world recording debut of all the music on the album, including the three-part suite In So Many Worlds written by noted trumpeter and composer Dave Douglas and dedicated to pianist Jaki Byard, which the S3NY commissioned through Chamber Music America.

Though the members of the original S3NY began their interaction in intense, free-form jam sessions, the concept for the S3NY eventually evolved to became a composers' collective.  Their repertoire has grown in scope over the past two decades and now features over sixty stylistically diverse works made up of originals by the members; works commissioned from composers such as Muhal Richard Abrams, Joe Lovano, Leo Smith, Marty Ehrlich, and Anthony Davis; and arrangements of classics by Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Wayne Shorter and others.

S3NY has recorded fourteen previous albums and, for over two decades, has been one of the most active touring ensembles of its kind, performing hundreds of concerts throughout North America, Europe, East Asia, India, the Middle East, and North Africa.  They are also thoroughly committed to education and outreach programs and have developed the innovative and unique 'Human Residency," a series of seminars and lecture/demonstrations linking music to the arts and humanities, ever widening their circle of devoted fans.

But it is performing and playing live that enthralls the group.  It's that 'working out" of the music in front of and in conjunction with a live audience that allows their pieces to grow and thrive.  In fact, all the music on this recording — though recorded here for the first time — has had ample opportunity to be 'worked out" in numerous performances, adding to the animate quality of this recording.

Watching the animated trio is a lot of fun, not only for their body language and facial cues, but for the innovative methods they use in extending the sounds from their instruments.  These extensions allow the trio to take on the sound of a much larger or differently-orchestrated ensemble, as in the sonically deceptive 'Upstart" that starts with what John calls his 'stickato" technique.  James describes the piece as 'just a 'fun,' melodic, up-tempo, swinging kind of vehicle," but besides the timbral ruse of the intro, it's also filled with little trick cadences that make it a kick to listen to.

John's three-part suite Nature, Time, Patience stems from three things he thinks about a lot.  Despite the title, however, the pieces are not necessarily intended to be precise musical depictions of those three things.  The bluesy, 'swamp" feeling of the first movement is an example of something that grew out of the group playing the music.  'That's what I love about writing this kind of music — and I mean this kind of music," relates John.  'It's so malleable and open to being changed and developed by the players.  Over the amount of time you play it, it does really change.

James' high energy 'Offspring" closes the album.  The tune became the S3NY's sort of 'Rhythm changes" over the three nights of recording.  'I think it's a great name," explains James,  'like maybe a combination of 'Off Minor' and 'Joy Spring.'" 

It's also a springboard for a little 'cuttin' loose" — probably not as acerbically as at Bill Murray's party, but full of the skill and musicality that comes being a working unit for more than a quarter century and catalyzed by their newest member.  'You don't just wake up in the morning one day and say, 'I'm cuttin' loose,'" advises James.  'You have to develop that.  You have to work on that and study how to do that, you know?  That is part of the joy of improvising: to just 'boom,' you're out there just lettin' it go."

—Frank Tafuri

[Read complete interview with the String Trio of New York.]

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