Trio! (featuring Bela Fleck, Stanley Clarke & Jean-Luc Ponty) :: 06.22.05 :: Cain Park :: Cleveland Heights, OH
After being shut out of the sold-out Trio! show at the Discover Jazz Festival a few weeks ago in Burlington, VT, I made sure to secure a pair of lawn seats at Cain Park – a small, intimate amphitheater near my new home of Cleveland Heights. Reading some early reviews and hearing rumblings about the performance from my lucky friends who bought tickets early for the Burlington show, I knew that Trio! was not to be missed. And sure enough, I wasn't disappointed.
Trio! is a unique combination of instruments and backgrounds – so unique that the crowd seemed to have no solid idea about what to expect from their merging. The only member of the trio who I had seen previously was Bela Fleck. His jazzy, live bluegrass sound always seemed to meld into a new creature depending on his stage partners. When performing with Edgar Meyer (with whom Fleck plans to tour again this coming Fall), a noticeably different musician would materialize compared to his Flecktones personality. With his fresh playmates, I was confident that I would see a brand new Bela. Stanley Clarke, a bass marvel in his own right, has spent his 30+ year career performing with the likes of Chick Corea, Joe Henderson, and Stan Getz. The terms "legend" and "virtuoso" somehow escape pretentiousness with Clarke. He deserves every ounce of praise he receives, and his humble presence on stage lends more credence to his image as a jazz great. Jean-Luc Ponty, the French violinist who would uncompromisingly steal the show by the end of the night, was technically the least "decorated" of the three, even though he has spent time working with both Frank Zappa and Elton John. With 20 Grammy nominations under Fleck's belt and considering Clarke's Grammys, Emmys, and platinum records, the show was literally an all-star performance.
The setting was just right for an evening of jazz/classical/bluegrass/whatever – not a single cloud in the sky, and the temperature was barely noticeable with a slight summer breeze. The show began an hour before sunset with a modest entrance and a bluegrassy tune called "South" reminiscent of the Flecktones' Live Art. The piece was slow at first, and not as jazzy as I had been expecting. After a clearly rehearsed opening melody, however, the trio began to improvise, and Clarke came alive with his lightning-quick upright bass thump. The audience immediately perked up, and the first of many roars came out of the pavilion. The show had begun. After trading solos, the first song ended, and the trio dove into the next. A haunting piece with Ponty playing slowly on his violin gradually transitioned into Clarke playing a fast slap upright bass. The crowd exploded, and Trio! had our full attention for the remainder of their two-hour set. After a warm welcome in Jean-Luc Ponty's thick French accent and some stage chatter in which they decided to name their second song "The Legend of Funky Ponty," the group launched into a long composition by Clarke, clearly inspired by Coltrane, which may have been Fleck's finest moment of the evening. This piece was followed by a completely solo performance by Clarke entitled "Touch," which featured some of the most unique and mind-blowing upright bass playing I have yet to experience. With what could only be described as a melding of the styles of Kaki King and Les Claypool, Clarke brought the pavilion to a standing ovation.
The next piece, written by Fleck and entitled "Storm Warning," was perhaps the most beautiful and intricate of the evening. It was clear that all three musicians were struggling to keep up with each other as their sounds created a complex maze of musical improvisation. Ponty won over the audience as his exquisite and overpowering talent dominated the soundscape. I compare this piece to "B Tune," my personal favorite from Fleck's earlier tour with Meyer. Given some time to mature and grow, "Storm Warning" could easily become one of Fleck's truly great compositions. Afterwards, Clarke grabbed a mic and said, "Phew, well, we got through that one. Sometimes you need a psychiatrist after you play this stuff."
A solo performance by Fleck followed, with sounds that would have fit perfectly on his Perpetual Motion collection. Two playful, emotionally drawing pieces came after Fleck's solo, both with light, energetic sounds and powerful crescendos that brought grins to every face in sight. Finally, the moment came for Ponty's solo performance, which surpassed audience expectations and became Ponty's three solo performances. The crowd had clearly been waiting for Ponty to take the stage alone, and this was undoubtedly the high point of the night with rapid tempo changes and lighting-quick movement balanced with intricate composition. The crowd wanted more, as evidenced by the deafening standing ovation after Ponty finished his third piece.
Finally, the trio finished their set with a country-twang composition called "Plucky Davenport," with Clarke on an electric bass guitar for the first time. The crowd, however, was not going to let Trio! get away without an encore. Less than a minute was all it took to bring the three musicians back on stage to finish with a piece called "Jouets" (French for "toys"). With Clarke thumping away on his upright bass and Ponty playing faster than at any other point that evening, Fleck picked up his tempo and built to a climax of sound that left us in awe of the talent we just witnessed.
After experiencing Trio!, I'm still not quite sure how to characterize their music. Never did I feel that I was listening to classical, bluegrass, or jazz, but rather a well-crafted blend of all three. Elements of each influence played a vital part in the sound without dominating in any direction. I left with the sense that I had just witnessed some of the best improvisational music on tour in America right now, and I suggest anyone with an inclination to see this group get tickets now because they go fast. It isn't certain when these three will tour together again, so do yourself a favor and be sure to catch this group while you can. One thing is for sure: one exclamation point on the Trio simply may not be enough to do justice to this phenomenal tour.
South, The Legend of Funky Ponty, Song to Jam, Touch (Clarke Solo), Storm Warning, Untitled (Fleck Solo), No Regrets, Hunter’s Room, Untitled (Ponty Solo), Plucky Davenport
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