Trios, the new release by New York City-based piano trio Bearthoven is a masterclass in eclecticism. With this album, the trio, which consists of percussion (Matt Evans), piano (Karl Larson), and bass (Pat Swoboda), set out to create a collection that presents a sample of the more than 20 new works that Bearthoven has commissioned as well as to showcase music from composers with markedly different musical backgrounds. Trios more than achieves these goals; the blend of sharply contrasting aesthetics and exceptional musicianship here yields a fascinating and joyful product that fuses exuberant eclecticism with top-quality performance.
Although each of the six pieces on Trios comes from quite different musical places, there is an overarching structure. Broadly speaking, these selections fit into two groups: three of the six tracks are rhythm-forward, “post-minimalist” pieces, while the other three tend toward soundscape and abstraction. Trios begins with one of the post-minimal compositions, and alternates between the two categories, ending with Adrian Knight’s peaceful and contemplative “The Ringing World.”
While Bearthoven identifies as a “piano trio,” their instrumentation (percussion, piano, and bass) is decidedly unusual. This setup is common in other types of music (jazz, pop, etc.), but is largely unexplored as a vehicle for contemporary classical. One other notable group that shares this interesting space is the all-acoustic ensemble Dawn of Midi, similarly composed up of drums, piano, and bass, and also based in New York City. Both groups occupy similar inter-genre spaces. However, their divergent raisons d’être result in musical outputs that are complementary and non-duplicative: while Dawn of Midi focuses on self-composed and improvised groove-based music that is influenced by global traditions, Bearthoven is oriented around collaboration with a diverse range of composers whose music tends strongly toward contemporary classical.
That is not to say that Bearthoven has an aversion to grooves, however. In fact, the opening track, Brooks Frederickson’s “Undertoad,” and the second-to-last track, Brendon Randall-Myers’s “Simple Machine,” have collections of grooves that are both wantonly energetic and fascinating in their complex construction. Bearthoven executes both enjoyably and with great attention to detail, which is typical for tracks on this release.
The more atmospheric pieces on Trios also showcase Bearthoven’s remarkable energy and outstanding musicality. Especially in these tracks, the constant communication between the players is obvious. On Knight’s “The Ringing World” and Fjóla Evans’ “Shoaling” particularly, the unity with which the trio executes (sometimes quite subtle) shifts of volume, intensity, and time is a triumph. The responsiveness and individual mastery necessary to pull off that kind of seamless groupthink is rare and requires real dedication.
Diversity of repertoire, attention to detail, flexibility, and commitment to individual and ensemble excellence are Bearthoven’s strengths. With these assets, Bearthoven has achieved a consistent ensemble sound that is apparent even in the face of broad eclecticism. Based on Trios, Bearthoven is an ensemble that can be counted upon to deliver with poise, mastery, and style—and to produce new material that is both diverse and superlative.