By The Landlord
“The trio is the biggest sound you can have with the smallest unit." – Charlie Hunter
The saying is that two’s company and three’s a crowd, but in music that simply not the case. I’ve written about the number three in the past, that as a concept it could be perceived extra, odd, the third man, the other woman, a distraction, or a disruption, the extra leg. But in a trio, three also completes a pattern. It's the key point of the love or other triangle. It makes the story. It’s a new dynamic. It can actually strengthen. It’s the vital third layer. Most chords are triads – three notes are much richer and stronger than merely two. And in turn many songs are based on three different, but related chords that take us on a narrative and direction in mood, returning us back to the root-note chord. And widen this perspective and there is something very pleasing about the sound of three musicians - perhaps they offer a balance of bass, middle-range and treble.
There is also something special, extra-dimensional, among a trio, perhaps also because we mostly have two of several things – eyes, ears, legs, arms, hands. But a trio brings a new perspective, a third eye if you like. When you're stuck between two choices, there can be another road to go down. It’s a painting's triptych. And a trio occurs in many cultures and religions from Norse mythology to Christianity. It’s Father, Son and Holy Ghost. It’s a rhetorical device of beginning, middle and end. It’s breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s a natural living pattern, the three periods of eight-hours in 24, for sleep, work and play.
A trio of words is also ternary rhetorical device, of repetition, emphasis, and comparison used continuously by great speakers and writers. It’s the triumvirate, the trilogy and the trinity. It's the three amigos, the tree little birds, the three musketeers. It's the red, white and blue, it's the tricolour. It's Neapolitan ice cream. It's liberté, egalité, and fraternité. It's the ghost of Christmas past, present and future. It's the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and it's Mary, Mungo and Midge.
So this week our focus is not on the number three in lyrics, but on music with three musicians, whether they sing or play, or often both who operate as a trio. Not relevant this time are groups where there are three prominent singers but who are backed by a band, such as The Supremes or Destiny’s Child, but where the three artists are a self-contained unit, the only performers. They might overdub their own parts in recording, but essentially play just as a three-person unit, a trio.
The traditional pop music format has been the Fab Four (although at least two of those in particular could do everything), the basic foursome of many bands each taking on drums, bass, guitar and vocals independently. But in a trio in that genre there’s an interesting dynamic where at least one of the three must do more than one of those. Often it’s the guitarist or the bass player who sings, but sometimes the drummer. How does that effect the dynamic of this music? That’s what we are looking to explore this week, across a range of genres, not just pop, nor indeed jazz, or classical.
Of course there have been some very famous trios over the years, from the Jimi Hendrix Experience to Cream, The Police, the Beastie Boys, Stray Cats, ZZ Top, The Jam, Violent Femmes, Motörhead, Nirvana (mostly), and then later there have been some unexpected trios within bands with the names One Man Army or Ben Folds Five. So any of those, and more of course are relevant. Or you might wish to go back in time to singing trios such as the Andrews Sisters, but only when they were unaccompanied. But there are also some excellent contemporary trios, such as The Wave Pictures and Omni.
And while there is limited space to include all great jazz trios, these groups represent some of the finest examples of three musicians expressing music at a forefront. That could be perhaps the great piano, bass and drum combinations, such as Piano jazz trios, Bill Evans, Scott LaFaro, and Paul Motian. Or Oscar Peterson Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen. Or Ahmad Jamal, Israel Crosby, and Vernell Fournier. And who can match Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Max Roach? Then there’s more recent trios, such as The Bad Plus, comprising Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson and Dave King.
Trios of course come up in many other parts of culture, working in teams to become infinitely greater than a pair might achieve, and three-dimensional expression of human communication and skill. In football, that might, for example be legends of the past – Manchester United’s Best, Law and Charlton, or Brazil’s Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldhino.
Even in ordinary life, a trio can be extraordinary. Three Identical Strangers, a new documentary tells the incredible tale of triplets born on the same day in 1961 in New York, but who were separated for adoption, and then by chance discovered each other in 1980. But life isn’t that simple, and this film tells what they found out, or indeed didn’t find out why this happened.
We’ve now also a few other Bar visitors in to talk about the trio in music. “People like the idea of the trio and so I did mostly trio,” says Jimmy Smith.
“I started out by myself, but it eventually turned into a trio by the mid-'60s - a conga drum and another guitarist. And that's been mostly what I've worked with most of the time,” says Richie Havens.
“There is something magical about three, - a trio is tight and nicely economical.” says Ian Williams, guitarist with the band Battles.
We’ve mentioned The Police, and now Andy Summers is here to mention his thoughts about that dynamic. “Well, I’ve got four or five records in my head at a time that I try to work on and I would like to do a guitar trio record next. Since The Police I've mostly made records with keyboards.”
I’ve done my introduction, and the second participant in this process is this week’s playlister guru, who I’m delighted to announce is the notably knowledgable Nilpferd. But who is the third party in this trio? Naturally it is you, learned readers, so please place your songs and music that show as man sides of the art of the trio in comments below for deadline at 11pm (UK, GMT) on Monday for playlists published on Wednesday. One, two, three …
New to comment? It is quick and easy. You just need to login to Disqus once. All is explained i in About/FAQs ...
Fancy a turn behind the pumps at The Song Bar? Care to choose a playlist from songs nominated and write something about it? Then feel free to contact The Song Bar here, or try the usual email address. Also please follow us social media: Song Bar Twitter, Song Bar Facebook. Song Bar YouTube. Subscribe, follow and share.