Trio’s motto could be all for one, one for all

Boston Globe, February 9, 2007

In the universe of jazz ensembles, the piano trio – made of piano, bass, and drums – is one of the classic forms. It is also, potentially, one of the most hermetic. It lacks the marshalling, directing effect that a horn appears to provide; in fact, it sometimes seems to have no leader at all.

That selflessness, of course, is a virtue, one that pianist Marc Copland, bassist Gary Peacock, and drummer Bill Stewart have captured on a crystalline new recording, “Modinha,” in support of which they visit the Regattabar on Thursday.

The spine of this collaboration is between Peacock and Copland, who first worked together in the 1980s. Suitably enough, each is listed as the group’s leader – Copland on the record, Peacock on the show bill. Each is a veteran of several waves of jazz history and, to some degree, an outsider.

At 71, Peacock is a venerable figure on the bass, not unlike his contemporary Charlie Haden, and with a similarly broad discography, having worked with figures as far-out as the 1960s iconoclast Albert Ayler. Unlike Haden, however, Peacock did not emerge as a leader; in the past two decades, he has been best known as the bassist in Keith Jarrett’s working group.

Copland, meanwhile, started out as a saxophonist before switching instruments while already a working artist; now 58, he’s a compulsive collaborator much of whose work as a leader has appeared on small European labels with brilliant sound but limited distribution.

Speaking together on a three-way phone connection from their respective homes, Peacock and Copland dwell easily on the musical connection they’ve felt since their first meeting in the early 1980s.

“It was a very magical kind of experience,” Copland says. “Here was this bassist who was legendary in some circles, and the thing that struck me was that his feeling for music and harmony was very similar to what was in my mind.”

Peacock concurs. “There was an immediate empathy, especially with respect to harmony,” he says.

As they talk, they give each other space, recognizing each other’s pauses. Later, Copland says that when it comes to discussing musical sensibility, he finds himself almost always in agreement with Peacock.

Rounded out by fellow traveler and, at 40, relative young blood Billy Stewart, the trio’s work on “Modinha” exhibits that kind of fine-tuned mutual recognition. The style is limpid and elegant, with formal excursions around structured lines but also moments of unornamented whimsy. The title track, an Antonio Carlos Jobim ballad, is particularly lovely. Most of the other compositions are Copland’s.

“Chamber jazz” and “spontaneous composition” are two of the jazz code words for the sort of music and the improvisational techniques at work here, though Peacock shrugs off both terms.

“Those are kind of catch-all phrases to describe something that cannot be articulated,” he says.

Call it what you will, but this is trio music that distills a clean and clear essence, perhaps augmented by the audiophile-worthy production. Those who like their jazz grimy may not find it to their taste; it’s music that doesn’t so much reach out as it draws in. As piano trios can be, it tends toward the insular, but that is no vice when the island is so beautiful.

Peacock and Copland are, in a sense, jazz lifers. Neither is a wailer or a banger; they tend to play in support, not in front. Neither is a big-time public face of the music. Neither is African-American, for whatever that is worth, nor embroiled in the politics of musical movements and history. They record largely in Europe and make much of their living there. They are simply committed musicians who dwell deeply in their art.

The story that Peacock chooses to praise Copland is one that makes those values plain.

“One of the things that impressed me about Marc was that he was already a competent saxophonist, and then he woke up one morning and realized he needed to play piano,” Peacock says. “So he locked himself up and worked until he was able to do it.”

“That kind of commitment – that this is more important than life, right now – when a person does that, a lot of questions that might come up, don’t. If somebody’s really committed, there’s not much to worry about.”

He chuckles: “Because there aren’t any other options.”