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Return of the Piano Men

The jazz trio is re-inventing itself, and the piano is making piano players the hottest musicians on the scene.

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For decades, jazz was a horn player's game. Since the '80s, the jazz business has engaged in a furious search for the next trumpeter a la Wynton Marsalis, and since the '90s, they've looked for the next saxophonist like Joshua Redman.

The 2000s may be remembered as the decade of the pianists. Not since Humphrey Bogart leaned over the keyboard in Casablanca and asked Dooley Wilson to "play it again, Sam," has jazz piano been so hip.

Trios like The Bad Plus and Medeski Martin and Wood can fill large auditoriums usually headlined by leading rock bands.  Brad Mehldau could and would, if he weren't so devoted to smaller venues, and Jason Moran is fast developing an audience that will force him into an enviable set of options on where to present his music.

And piano settings are branching out from the conventional keyboards, bass and drums ensemble.  The resulting discs are no less intimate, and they encompass the broad variety of sound that is making the piano trio so popular these days.  The best of this lot are two recent releases Vision Towards Essence (Pi Records) by Muhal Richard Abrams and Holon (ECM) by Nik Bartsch's Ronin.

Abrams is a legend in most Chicago jazz circles, but he has shunned the spotlight. The 77-year-old piano great is better known as an organizer.  In the early '60s, he started a group called The Experimental Band, which played weekly on Chicago's South Side.  The group became the basis for the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the epicenter of Chicago's jazz's avant garde sound, which tends to be more pensive and eclectic than either the New York or European wings of the genre.  The organization's illustrious history as an incubator for four decades of musicians was recently chronicled in the book, A Power Stronger Than Itself:  the AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press) by George Lewis, a longtime member and chairman of the jazz studies department at Columbia University.

During the last decade, Abrams has recorded infrequently.  His stellar trio release, Streamin (Pi, 2006) was his first recording in five years, thus it was a surprise when Vision arrived so soon on its heels.  The new disc documents a solo concert by Abrams from 1998, and it's a very welcome addition to a vastly underrated discography.  Although the music is improvised, the one-hour performance has the feel of a meticulously composed piece of music, with a seamless narrative that encompasses dramatic moments of extreme tension and passages of elegant calm.  Throughout the disc, Abrams never loses his conviviality.  Listening to the music doesn't feel like a formal event; instead it's a conversation with an old friend who just happens to speak the language of 88 finely tuned drums.

Bartsch is a Swiss-trained pianist from Zurich, and he calls the music from his group Horon Zen Funk. The moniker works if you allow the first word of the couplet 70 percent dominance.  This isn't a bad thing; Holon's music is rigorously composed, rhythmically diverse and intensely played; however, the sound is so discreet and cozy that it feels like finely wrought chamber music.

The quintet's lineup, piano, bass, drums, reeds (mostly bass clarinet) and additional percussion. is geared for flamboyant music, but Ronin's sound keeps turning inward in a way that is alluring rather than haughty.  Each tune starts with a simple riff that is developed into a much more complex statement via group interactions, and rather than blowing up into a large and conventional ensemble sound, the overall effect remains quiet and muted. Bartsch's unique compositions owe equally to Steve Reich, the minimalist composer, Shuggie Otis, the funk pioneer (composer of  "Strawberry Letter 23") and to jazz great Chick Corea.

The exciting future in jazz lies in how emerging musicians like Bartsch are taking well-known sources and creating unique and accessible new styles.  Piano-led ensembles, because of their intimacy and small size, have a greater range and fluidity, and this may account for their rising popularity (though let's not discount the economy, there's a lot less overhead with three to five musicians than seven or eight).

Other pianists making stellar music outside of the trio format include Wayne Horvitz, whose excellent One Dance Alone (Songlines) features an ensemble of cornet, cello and bassoon.  Yitzhak Yedid's Oud Bass Piano Trio (Between the Lines) gives away the instrumentation but not the beautiful and complex music within.  Myra Melford, a pianist well versed in going outside the lines, makes wistful and elegant music in duet with Marty Ehrlich on Spark! (Palmetto Records).  Yet the most archetypal moment that illustrates the ascendancy of the piano comes from a conventional trio. On his wonderful disc, In My Element (Blue Note), Robert Glasper's trio moves seamlessly from Radiohead's Everything in its Place into Herbie Hancock's classic Maiden Voyage and then in the middle the trio finds a place for Duke Ellington's African Flower.