There can be no dispute individually clarinetist/bass clarinetist Andy Biskin and his accompanying duo are all musical artists of the highest caliber. Texas raised Biskin studied music and anthropology at Yale before working with noted historian Alan Lomax. Biskin plays with a silky tone and high degree of musical refinement. His command of intonation is impeccable, both when playing straight and when he slides it around in search of added inflection. Dave Ballou, a Berklee College of Music and University of New Hampshire graduate, has released eight CDs as a leader and currently teaches at Towson University. Ballou is flexibility in trump cards and brings it all to bear in service of the music. Drew Gress, born in Trenton, is one of New York’s finest first call jazz bassists. He has served as Artist-in-Residence at St. Petersburg Conservatory in Russia and at the University of Colorado-Boulder.
Together they commingle their talent in service of 13 of Biskin’s compositions on Trio Tragico. All three play with remarkable empathy and cleanliness, which are demanded by the not only the complexity of the compositions but also by the open format of such an ensemble. At most there can only be three voices playing at a time, but it is the duo, with one of the horn players soloing to Gress’ lightly sparkling touch on bass line support that forms so much of the disc’s time.
"Boomerang," the opening cut, is a case in point of how well this group can play together. Following a slow and mournful introduction, the tempo picks up with an angular and tricky melody before giving way to solos: first Biskin, then Ballou (both accompanied by Gress), before Gress takes a small solo turn. A short ala-Dixieland polyphonic open section with all three artists soloing leads back to the head before the tune is taken out on an upnote (both figuratively and literally). Their handling of the five plus minutes of trio interplay is handled craftily and with equal amounts of swing and hip style.
There are, however, a number of tunes that don’t quite get pulled off as ably. "I Should Talk" is a ballad that, during the solo sections, searches for unity. Both Biskin and Ballou take a number of interloping attempts at swing-ish double-time, but neither really seems to be intent on exploring the dichotomy this presents in contrast with the almost atonalish and avant-garde meandering melody. Gress maintains a plaintive almost cantus firmus like bass line during these solos, but here too seems to be searching for an underpinning that will serve both artist and tune.
The strongest moments on the recording are those when Biskin and Ballou work in dual improvisational mode. On "Hey Day" each provides tasty statements against and with the other that raise the level of the other’s artistry as each works to increasingly arch over their compatriot. The end result is superb interplay.
Gress is a good composer, but doesn’t seem to be able to lock into a set unifying concept throughout. At times he seemingly goes for a Masada-like style - as on "Walking Distance" and "Paging Mr. Yes," while at other times his melodies turn into European-like classical musical inspired statements - as on "I Think Not" and where a minimalistic melodic line is placed in contrast with some great bass line walking and "You That Knew Him" where intense introspection is the guiding principal. The Klezmer-ish "Night Shade" shows yet another compositional facet to Biskin’s art.