Review: Trichotomy at Southport

A late-night festival set from Australian piano trio Trichotomy holds Alan Ainsworth's attention with compositions that swell like ocean waves

Sean Foran and his long-standing trio Trichotomy (pictured right) held an appreciative audience during a late session at the Southport Jazz Festival on 3 February with a carefully-considered set. There can’t be many bands who offer scorebooks alongside their latest CD and vinyl albums – “for any musicians who might want to study our work” said Foran – but that’s the kind of musicians they are.

With their fourth album as a trio - Known, Unknown - out next week, Trichotomy are in the middle of a tour of the UK and Europe. Foran believes that the trio’s music has moved on considerably since their last album three years ago and the new album incorporates a number of new elements; a period of collaborative work with a wide variety of artists has broadened their outlook and for the first time the trio has begun to introduce electronics to broaden the sound textures. Continuing to move forward is important for a band which has been together for the best part of 18 years. Formed in 1999, the group is led by the pianist Sean Foran with John Parker on percussion and Sam Vincent on the double bass.

Trichotomy draw on a diverse range of sources for ideas and inspiration. Foran told me before the set that Trichotomy are inspired by traditions as far-ranging as Aphex Twin, Vijay Iyer, Tortoise and The Bad Plus; there’s an elemental rhythmic foundation to their music which recalls contemporary art music, together with the kind of modulations and developments favoured by musicians like Bill Evans, Pat Metheny, Brad Mehldau or the modern European jazz of Tord Gustavsen & Nik Bartsch. The Scandanavian sound permeates their work.

Foran maintains that the trio’s commitment to interplay between the musicians and improvisation binds their work to the jazz tradition. Certainly the selection they played at Southport almost always found a balance between notated playing and completely free improvisation. The interaction between musicians came out in what was often a free-flowing conversation with contributions from each player, usually launched by early fractured rhythms of a piece like Asset or Liability or the earlier piece The Blank Canvass, in which Foran’s lower register ostinato figures or extended pedal points lay the ground work for development by the other players. Trichotomy’s compositions modulate and swell like ocean waves, well to the fore in a composition like Past Tense, one of Vincent’s compositions.

I liked other qualities in the music of Trichotomy. Foran’s playing is sometimes strikingly lyrical but it’s a lyricism not for its own sake but there to be opened up and developed. Enjoy it while it’s there but be ready to take off in another direction. In Parker’s composition Cells there were mesmerising piano passages which gradually built up with bass counterpoint into something close to an atonal work before returning to the earlier atmospheric theme. For once the use of electronics was subtle. In Parker’s piece it was a minute or so before I realised that the new textures were electronic and this approach showed well in Imaginary Limits.

The audience was appreciative and the performance provoked discussion; one member after the set was overheard animatedly arguing the merits of John Cage and Bill Evans. Trichotomy probably won’t have your feet tapping but they will engage and stimulate your mind. Definitely worth a listen if, like me, you didn’t previously know the work of this inventive Australian trio. Trichotomy’s 2003 debut album, now for the free, and the second In Is In were released on Jazzhead (when the band was known as Misinterpretato). Variations came out in 2007, the first to be released internationally: Known, Unknown should be available by the time you read this.

Photo by Alan Ainsworth

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