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Matthew Ruddick

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Author of Funny Valentine, an acclaimed new biography of the jazz trumpet player and singer, Chet Baker.
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Saturday, 17 August 2019 20:33

Shalosh - Onwards And Upwards

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Bad Plus wannabes draw on multiple sources, and largely succeed.

Shalosh is an Israeli trio taking up one of the hardest challenges in jazz: reinventing the piano trio through the alchemical process of combining jazz, rock and pop into a new musical element. 

Many have tried - The Bad Plus (a clear influence) and the late Esbjörn Svensson’s Trio most successfully, and more recently the Neil Cowley Trio and Go-Go Penguin to a lesser degree - but few have succeeded, and it’s a crowded market where a band has to offer something spectacular to really succeed.

This band gets close. 

Formed of three close friends - Gadi Stern on piano, rhodes an micro korg, David Michaels on double bass and Matan Assayag on drums, Shalosh’s music is replete with the throwback references to the bands mentioned above: choppy, repetitive and evolving chops; postmodern ironic re-workings of pop favourites, a danceability one normally associates with the pop work. 

You can imagine the chaps in marketing at ACT rubbing their hands: there’s enough here to suit the jazz-heads and the jazz-curious millennials alike. But that’s perhaps the album’s one weakness, in that through trying to cover all the bases, the music - once or twice - shows its thinness.

The drumming is almost pop-rock simple on first track After the War. There isn’t much sign at first of complexity but it's a smokescreen for some silky soloing and rumbustious trio playing, which builds to a pleasing crescendo.

Second track Children of the 90s - the first ballad, which could be the soundtrack to a mournful heartbreak scene in any rom-com - offers nothing particularly to write home about here, but it’s a perfectly serviceable tune with nice moments, particularly when the tune takes a left turn about halfway through and the Stern is given free reign to show he knows his way around the 88 keys, and then some.

Meditation is, in a pleasingly nominative deterministic way, a contemplative, quiet track, opening with simple arpeggios and light finger work on the bass. The mood brightens as energy floods in halfway through, and its musical consciousness awakens … then quickly subsides again, as the track lapses into a deeper, soporific state until the end.

The fourth track, You’ll Never Walk Alone, it becomes apparent one minute after some very angular opening chords, is an homage to the Carousel number. It feels a bit of a stretch and, even under Stern’s guidance, this feels the weakest of the tunes on the album. 

A musical number feel like a square peg for a round jazz hole, here. Whereas the next track, The Impossible Love Story of Jackie and Hanan, has substance and more to say about the fate of the eponymous lovers, whose relationship - based on the musical mood conjured - can’t have been easy, particularly when Stern wheels out some perturbing sounds on the micro korg about seven minutes in, which scream disarray and anger.

Sinan and His Never Ending War against the Bureaucracy will, on title alone, bring a smile to the listener, and the music itself is one of the more enjoyable cuts - it begins up-beat, but at points comes up against a proverbial brick wall as the tempo stills then wakes up again, offering up the simplest of melodies that has power in that simplicity, as it soars over some super drumming from Assayag.

The seventh track is an eighties throwback to the brilliant A-Ha pop tune, Take on Me. While the musical superstructure is discernible, this is parsecs away from peppy electronic pop. Yet it maintains a certain peppiness and smiling simplicity that makes the listener warm to it, especially as the touch points with the original accumulate.

Tune for Mr. Ahmad Jamal is a shuffling tune of little consequence, and Lullabye - while suitably soft-toned and soft-edged - does little to stir the emotion (and may more likely send the listener to sleep), but the album ends on a positive note with Onwards and Upwards.

You can listen to a superb live recording of Onwards and Upwards here:

This takes time to move through the gears but when it motors - and it ends on a powerful, if slightly melancholy choral crescendo - it is perhaps the strongest signal of Shalosh’s debt to The Bad Plus and EST. But it also signals their ambition to build on what those groups started and to refine it which, to some extent, they do on this album.

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