Erskine's take on making music: capturing an impression of a lake through trees, with a little mist; "I don’t need a flock of geese to fly by.” That light approach sums up this minimalist piano-based jazz set.
You Never Know: 9 tracks / 58.39
Time Being: 11 tracks / 64.27
As It Is: 9 tracks / 57.18
Juni: 8 tracks / 50.44
ECM’s Old and New Masters series collects albums from major acts, and while drummer-leader Peter Erskine may not be the best-known name among them, he and his bandmates Palle Danielsson (double bass) and the late John Taylor (piano) have worked alongside such luminaries as Weather Report, Jan Garbarek, Bill Frissell and Keith Jarrett.
Part of the trio’s unusual character comes from being led by a drummer – especially as Erskine is generally more concerned about space (or “anti-drumming,” as he calls it) than driving rhythms.
The liner notes quote him telling the band what he wants to achieve: “Just imagine that you’re riding on a train and you glance out the window, and through some trees you see a lake and you see some mist there; just that fleeting impression. I don’t need a flock of geese to fly by.” That even approach, eschewing peaks and troughs, and reducing solos to their most minimal, is evident throughout this series.
What this means in practice is that the players need to listen to one another far more deeply. If they are not laying down a groove for another to solo over, they have to constantly watch out for changes in mood, intensity and pace. That sensitivity in their playing, along with an evident expertise, shows right from the start.
As this four-disc set kicks off with “New Old Age,” recorded in July 1992, you can tell that this trio is out of the ordinary. The track flows like ripples, hypnotic and beautiful. Two tracks later, “On the Lake” resumes the ambience. The second disc starts with a very similar pattern and some beautiful tracks.
These albums – especially the first two – are a highly consistent set of moods, so you don’t get an odd one out to spoil the box.
The band can be more prickly at times. As It Is – a title that has been tweaked to name this box set – feels a little more angular in places, or rhythmically aggressive, as shown in the ten minute “Au Contraire.”
Predictably, pianist Taylor composes most of the pieces, while his bandmates add a few. Outside the band, several were written by Vince Mendoza, along with the odd Cole Porter or Kenny Wheeler piece.
Juni, their 1997 final outing, might arguably reveal some of the directional tensions surfacing in the trio. Erskine wanted a simple, folk-like structure, while Taylor preferred a more adventurous approach. But the variety in the first two tracks could not be cited as evidence, as they were both penned by Taylor. “Prelude No.2” is a sparse affair that develops some spikes, and “Windfall” has the air of a classic piano trio – fluid, tuneful and with a rather resonant bass break.
The box comes with a 28-page booklet that includes an 11-page essay on the set by John Kelman – although I am surprised that he doesn’t give the second disc a mention, even to note how its Staffan Linton track “Liten Vosa Till Karin” and Kenny Wheeler’s “Phrase One” stand out by being more conventional piano trio fare, taking a theme, breaking it down and then improvising around the fragments.
All in all, this is a highly rewarding set. It is classic, yet inventive; quiet, with a slightly jagged edge; and beautifully cohesive.
I even thought I heard a few very elegant geese flying by.