Just as cello is short for violoncello and kaz (pronounced "cuz") is the rarely used symbol for kazoo, piano is actually an abbreviation of pianoforte. In Italian, piano means "soft" and forte means "loud." Little Richard, then, is really a forte player, as are a great many concert pianists. And among today's batch of young piano-bass-and-drums jazz groups, Jason Moran's band and the Bad Plus are just as frequently forte trios as they are piano trios.
But in many cases, and particularly in the judgment of some macho tastemakers, there's something inherently soft about piano trios. Even deep, innovative music by Ahmad Jamal and Bill Evans has been dismissed as lightweight accompaniment to sipping cocktails and making whoopee—bad things to jazz fans, who prefer drinking coffee and masturbating.
The stigma surrounding piano trios is partly because such music does, in fact, often function in a background capacity at various humdrum settings (corporate-sponsored wine-tasting events, parties at my house). It's also due to the misconception that noisy, highly dissonant jazz (almost all jazz plays with dissonance, but we're talking about degrees here) is almost certainly adventurous and experimental, while quiet, pretty jazz is probably squishy and bourgeois. The syllogism behind the first part of that misconception goes something like this: (1) Lots of groundbreaking and exciting music (Bartók, Cecil Taylor, the Stooges) has relied heavily on dissonance and atonality; (2) the music of Artist X sure is noisy; (3) Artist X is groundbreaking and exciting. The syllogism behind the pretty-equals-squishy part can be sketched out by anyone familiar with the work of 101 Strings or George Winston.
Played at low (piano) volume, Frank Kimbrough's new trio album, Lullabluebye (Palmetto), and the Brad Mehldau Trio's Anything Goes (Warner Bros.) will both perform yeoman duty in mood setting. But both, especially the latter, will also reward foreground listening. Kimbrough is known as an inside/outside player, someone equally comfortable with pretty stuff played in time and spiky tunes played free. Lullabluebye's "Centering" makes good in the pretty style, while "Eventualities" is a mostly successful group effort in free mode. Fitting comfortably in between is the Monkish title track, a 22-bar blues that finds drummer Matt Wilson and bassist Ben Allison lighting fires in the spaces between notes.
Unfortunately, Kimbrough has a problematic rococo streak and can be a real cornball. "Kid Stuff," for instance, with its vaguely Corean melody and general air of cheery contemplativeness, sounds distressingly like the theme to a late-night public-affairs program produced by a cash-strapped PBS affiliate.
The Mehldau Trio's Anything Goes, a collection of standards plus a couple of recent pop tunes (Paul Simon, Radiohead), is a strong return to form after 2002's Largo, the pianist's bland pop-jazz collaboration with producer Jon Brion. Mehldau, bassist Larry Grenadier, and drummer Jorge Rossy have been working together for nearly a decade now, and their affinity for one another is reaching some kind of Paolo-and-Francesca-and-a-Dog-Named-Boo-ish level. Like three-minds-as-one-giant-brain kind of stuff, only the music doesn't sound over-thought. The interpretations thwart expectations without being snarky deconstructions. The trio's 5/4 reading of the album's title tune inserts blues into Cole Porter's sturdy but square melody. Conversely, they extract much of the gospel and blues from Simon's "Still Crazy After All These Years" but preserve its melancholy.
Mehldau's solos here tend to be more compressed than on some previous outings, but his precise and ample technique remains in full view. During the unaccompanied section of "Get Happy," for instance, his inter-paw interplay sounds like the musical equivalent of doing calligraphy with one hand and macramé with the other. Then the bass and drums return, and "Get Happy" gets funky, which it has no business doing. Now what do I have to do to get a cocktail in this joint?
Brad Mehldau plays solo with Robert Glasper Trio, 8 p.m. Sat., Oct. 23, at Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., 206-652-4255. $24 Earshot members/$26. Part of Earshot Jazz Festival.