The piano trio has evolved in many different ways since the classic Bill Evans Trio, with bassist Scott LaFaro, introduced the format to a looser, more polyphonic sound. The Kyle Motl Trio, which in addition to the bassist includes pianist Tobin Chodos and percussionist Kjell Nordeson, pushes the piano trio further into territory notable for the independence of its voices and its harmonic complexity.
The music on Panjandrums isn’t made out of conventional melodies and harmonies—far from it—but nevertheless it artfully conveys a range of moods and states of mind: restlessness, exuberance, introspection, capriciousness. Architecturally, each of the group’s three constituent parts is an interlocked piece in a tightly integrated whole. Bass and piano are distinctive but complementary voices carrying convoluted, often dense and rapid lines with, through and against each other. The drums set out a free pulse subdividing time and parceling it out into sequences of irregular but balanced and compact quanta. The closes the trio come to a conventional jazz trio piece is xOr, where the piano clearly takes the lead over a regular meter and a bass laying down a discernible harmonic foundation, complete with the simulacrum of a walking line. This is meticulously constructed music well-served by a crisp and finely balanced recording.
As I write this, double bassist Kyle Motl is on tour, playing contemporary compositions for solo double bass by the great Romanian Spectralists Iancu Dumitrescu and Horatiu Radulescu, among others. The works Motl has chosen to play are all conceptually and technically challenging pieces that extend the range of sounds the instrument can produce and correspondingly, the performance methods required to produce them. On Transmogrification, Motl’s new solo CD, the bassist plays his own music. But here, as in his touring repertoire, his playing is informed by his fluency in the language of contemporary performance practices, allowing him to take the instrument to the edge of its known world.
The fifteen tracks are sequenced to trace a narrative arc starting with the concrete, largely conventional Panjandrums for pizzicato bass and moving through increasing stages of abstraction. Although he uses advanced techniques and often prepares the bass with foreign objects, Motl’s choices are always intelligent and above all, musical, no matter how far the distance he takes the bass from a traditionally lyrical sound. He’s particularly good at drawing percussive effects from the instrument with fingers, hands and a tautly bouncing bow. On several tracks he modifies the bass with objects inserted between the strings in order to envelop the notes in a rattling, buzzing sound; on others, he elicits a fascinating world of quasi-electronic sounds simply with nuanced bow articulations.
All in all, Transmogrification is a fine addition to the large and still growing catalogue of recordings for solo double bass.