CD Review for “TRI-FI”

Tri-Fi: Triple Delight:

Fans of vocalist Curtis Stigers have known for years that he is supported by one of the finest and most cohesive rhythm sections in the business. Yet it was not until last year that pianist Matthew Fries, bassist Phil Palombi, and drummer Keith Hall went off to the studio on their own to document their collaboration as Tri-Fi. And while they are still touring with Stigers, their eponymous debut (2005, Consolidated Artists Productions) signals the
emergence of a first-class piano trio in the grand tradition of Evans, Peterson, Jarrett and Mehldau.

I first heard Matthew Fries accompanying Stacey Kent, and his family background certainly predisposed him to a career as a pianist and vocalist’s accompanistÑhis father was a professor of piano and his mother a classical singer. Following studies with the great Donald Brown at the University of Tennessee, Fries landed in New York,
winning the Great American Jazz Piano Competition in 1997and finishing second a yearlater in the American Pianists Association jazz competition. He released Song for Today (TCB, 2001) and continues to be in high demand supporting vocalists in addition to his regular gigs with Kent and Stigers.

Creating Tri Fi
Regarding the origin of their collaboration, Fries notes that “Keith and Phil were individually two of my favorite musicians to work with. Keith and I were already playing with Curtis for about a year and a half when the bass chair opened up. We both separately recommended Phil for the spot – for his music and for his personality…turned out to be a great recommendation.” Tri-Fi grew naturally from the trio’s tours with Stigers. “We really wanted a documentation of our work together and decided to put together a recording of our original music (very different than what we play with Curtis) and see how it came out,” says Fries. “We were looking for a band name for the album (in addition to using our own names) and the name Tri-Fi came up at an airport while we all had our laptops open and checking emailÑthe new life of a musician on the road. Someone said it as a jokeÑthree guys on
wifi = tri-fiÑand it stuck.”

The recording itself came about during a summer 2004 tour with Curtis Stigers. “We
recorded it in Brooklyn while we were in New York playing a gig with Curtis at the Oak Room in the Algonquin Hotel, the same studio I recorded my first album,” reports Fries. “Small place with a beautiful piano, and Michael Brorby really gets a great sound (especially considering the small space!).” And it was a logistically simple task to bring in
Stigers for the vocals on the last track, “You Go to My Head.”

Single Mind, Many Moods of Tri-Fi
Tri Fi provides not only a showcase for three sympathetic performers but also for three accomplished composers. Fries contributes four original works, Palombi and Hall three each, with the final track the only cover, the Coots/Gillespie classic, “You Go to My Head” featuring Stigers. Collaboration is the overarching theme, the playlist integrating the individuals’ works into a cohesive suite of a single mind with many moods. Fries is a master of legato lyricism and articulate combinations of chords and speed-demon runs, his modus
operandi informed by Evans and perhaps Powell while at times evoking such diverse modern masters as Herbie Hancock and Kenny WernerÑin other words, his style recalls many but in total resembles only Matthew Fries. His compositions are rhythmically diverse, creating a wide palette of emotion.

The set opens with his “Cross Country,” a catchy vamp moving under a twisting melody augmented with triplet figures and quadruplet fills. Palombi takes one of many extended solos that becomes the centerpiece of the track, while in the latter segment Hall turns up the heat and zooms into popping percussive action with clusters cymbal slashes and snare ripples.

“Goodnight Charlie Brown” flows with gentle syncopation, picking up a more swinging pulse with steady support from bass and drums while Fries fills in around the melody with elegantly legato phrasing. Palombi delivers his own legato lines over deftly placed short phrases from the piano while Hall keeps time with a chiming tingle. With a gentle touch from Fries and a stronger beat from Hall, the threesome unite to bring it home.

Fries’ “James” with its bluesy rhythmic shifts is one of my favorite tracks. The pianist launches the tune with a luxuriant single right-hand melody; Palombi traces the outline over Hall’s cymbals and clicky comping. A spiraling, spinning improvisation follows with engaging interplay among the trio, their harmonies giving this the feel of a round where each one comes in a few beats later in succession, creating flow rather than dissonance.
Complexity evolves throughout the track, only to resolve into a single chord.

“Hilary Step” adds a samba touch to the rhythm, again featuring the multi-faceted solo efforts of Palombi. Fries provides his own explorations with combinations of runs, triplets and slurs. Hall’s accents raise the ante, the track ending in repeating phrases from the piano. Phil Palombi displays his vast range of technique and mood throughout the recording and his three original compositions not only allow recognition of his talent but help showcase his compatriots as well.

On “My Family,” he and Fries engage in a counter melody exchange, and Fries reveals his Evanescent voicings. “A Point in Time” gives the bassist plenty of solo space with a more energetic swing. With deep resonance, Palombi moves along beneath Fries’ elegantly spiraling phrases, while Hall pushes forward from a background perch. With a bit of blue haze, the bass has the last word.

“LaFaro” is Palombi’s tribute to one of the heroes of modern bass and a pivotal figure in what was arguably Bill Evan’s finest trio. The bass takes the lead, improvising over the melody while piano and drum serve in supporting roles. Fries later picks up the melodic lead with his trilling figures, articulate phrasing, and a delightful interplay with Palombi; the two musicians’ complimentary melodic lines come together in near unison as Palombi breaks away to solo over Hall’s background cymbal splash, all fading to the finish.

Keith Hall’s “Kiri Kiri” also recalls the great Evans and LaFaro era. The ballad begins with a bowed, cello-like bass solo over Fries’ laid-back notes that echos the melody. Trading back and forth with Fries, Palombi moves into a lower register, now pizzicato. Throughout, Hall creates a nearly continuous shimmer with brushes. Overall, the effect is orchestral and gallant, the chime-like percussion evoking a weaver spinning gold.

The drummer’s “Gotta Give It Up” swings with a delta tinge. Palombi maintains a melodiccountercurrent before
launching a sassy arco solo, like an oral recitation exercise where phrases are given emphasis through repetition. Crisply attacking throughout the track, Hall trades with Fries as if in conversation.

A trio effort from the first drum phrase, Hall’s “Breakthrough” moves with a locomotive-like rhythm, featuring a resounding undercurrent from Palombi, snappling accents from the drumkit, and a minor, rambling melody from Fries. The pianist’s crackling ascents and descents set up Palombi’s buzzing, groaning solo rising from the bottom of the box. A left-hand piano vamp supports some aggressive fomentation from Hall, giving a forward thrust to the next statement from Fries, all ending in a rich sequence of chords.

The finale is the one cover, “You Go to My Head” with special guest vocalist (and regular employer) Curtis Stigers. Following an off-kilter introduction from bass and piano, Stigers serves as the fourth instrument with his own melody line. His hazy, inviting baritone floats above an instrumental mesh that offers merely an outline of the melody. Stigers never entirely disappears during Fries’ solo, a slowly evolving, romantic interlude enhanced by Palombi’s equally romantic deliberation. Ultimately, all four voices evaporate into the mist of audio heaven. Tri-Fi continue to tour with Curtis Stigers, but now perhaps Stigers will repeat his guest appearance role with future live and recorded editions of Tri-Fi. Their telepathic synergy gives Stigers and other soloists unique opportunities to showcase their voices, yet that synergy truly thrives when the trio alone is in command. I’m eagerly awaiting a “Tri-Fi Two-Fer.”

By Andrea Canter, Jazz Police