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The piano trio is the heart of jazz. This core unit of piano, bass and drums pumps life into the music. All jazz groups, big or small, rely on the piano, bass and drums (called “the rhythm section”) for their crucial thrust of energy. Taken out of a larger group, the piano trio contains all the essentials of jazz — rhythm, harmony and melody — purely and directly. Without horns or other elements to duck behind, the piano trio puts the resourcefulness and collective feel of the players to the ultimate test. When a different trio’s set can be heard one after another, what you get is not just energy but synergy, an apt name for a piano trio festival in Tokyo this month.

Synergy Live 2003, the first event of its kind in Japan, will host seven piano trios from seven different countries for a six-day festival June 17-22. The seven young players invited from Europe, with one from Japan, present a panorama of the most recent innovations and variations of the form. With two different groups playing a full set each day, the event will offer a rare chance to enjoy the “simple complexity” of piano trios. Just as part of the pleasure of World Cup soccer is contrasting team styles at their top level, Synergy Live, while less competitive, will produce illuminating and intriguing contrasts of piano trio styles closely juxtaposed.

The synergy that occurs within trios is particularly intimate, and for this reason, they have long fascinated jazz fans. The interior dialogue of piano, bass and drums is as distinctive as any conversation between close friends. The tight collaborations in the trio unit have led to many key evolutions in jazz. The shift from the classic texture of Miles Davis’ first rhythm section (Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb) to the daring explorations of Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams is one of the great divides in jazz. It’s easy to focus on the horn men out front and miss the depth of the rhythm section, but every jazz soloist relied deeply on support from piano, bass and drum for their support, energy and ideas.

Pianists are no less famed as stylists and tracing each piano giant’s contribution to the trio genre can be highly contentious. Does true genius reside in the 1920s stride pianists such as James P. Johnson or Fats Waller; the lush virtuosity of Art Tatum’s ’30s and ’40s era lyricism; the postwar bolts of eight-note lightning from bop master Bud Powell; the nuanced style of Bill Evans’ modal textures and delicate waltzes; or does it come to fruition in the postmodern free-jazz exuberance of Cecil Taylor? Jazz fans love to be partisan, but how the same combination of the same three instruments can produce such radical variations in sound remains a perennially fascinating question.

Synergy Live delights in not providing any answers with its lineup of a new generation of musicians. The recordings of these trios, named after their pianist-leaders, are available in Tokyo, though most remain better known in Europe.

Tokyoite Akira Ishii will carry the banner for Japan while the European trios will represent Finland, Italy, France, Belgium, Portugal and Sweden. Their seven cover a substantial range of styles and approaches, and it is hard to discern any particular national or cultural influence in their styles. Rather, they are highly individualistic.

Nathalie Loriers from Belgium plays clear, crisp lines and focuses on her original material. With highly accomplished technique, she weaves long strands of melodies with nimble precision. She is perhaps the most traditional of the seven, clearly preferring solos that show care and attention.

In contrast, Swedish pianist Esbjorn Svensson is the least trad-minded. He plunges his sound into electronic textures on several of his CDs. There’s also a lot of wit and humor in his playing, and in the titles of his clever originals, such as “Do the Jangle,” “Last Letter from Lithuania” or “Spam-Boo-Limbo.” He uses club beats and brash, inventive chording to emphasize the rhythms rather than just let his right hand do all the talking.

Maria Joao and Mario Laginha from Portugal don’t restrain themselves to just instruments, but add vocals (from Maria) to the trio format (making a quartet of parts, but who’s counting?). Their reinterpretations of tunes from Tom Waits, Tom Jobim and Stevie Wonder owe a great deal to the Portuguese tradition of vocals and the traditional voicings of folk music. They create startling new versions of catchy melodies and bring a pop and folk flavor to the festival.

Trio Toykeat, from Finland, are known for their wickedly funny sensibility (their name means, “the rude ones”). They play with disarming unpretentiousness in a style that draws not only from jazz but also from Latin music, classical and blues. In traveling and performing all around the world, they manage to pull those threads into a powerful sound all their own.

The two best-known of this P7 summit will perform sets with their trios and as soloists. Jean-Michel Pilc from France has had perhaps the broadest exposure, receiving great reviews not only in the European and Japanese jazz press, but from the more cautious American jazz media. His powerful delivery marks a distinctive new voice in piano trio jazz. His brash, bold phrasing avoids the niceness that plagues many piano trios and he engages in aggressive give and take with his bassist and drummer. Antonio Farao from Italy, has caught the attention of New York-based musicians, such as Bob Berg, with whom he has recorded. Notable both for his rapid-fire technique and his progressive stance, Farao works with modal harmonies that keep a hard bop sensibility while dashing off wild, unrestrained runs. On slower numbers, though, he is as stylish as any piece of exquisite Italian design. He paints with broad brushstrokes as well as intricate lines for a well-rounded overall approach.

Hometown pianist Akira Ishii has released several striking beautiful piano-trio CDs in recent years, the most recent titled “Synchronicity.” He plays in Tokyo with numerous groups, contributing his careful phrasing and deeply felt solos to all of them. Ishii caresses every note, holding each one until just the right moment of release, to create resonant harmonies and introspective atmospherics. His accents, dynamics and technique have a fullness and maturity beyond his relatively young age.

All the trios have a broad range, from swinging to languorous and from introspective to extroverted, but each has its innate predispositions. Some trios focus on the creation of slow, floating legato moods, while others fling out quick, busy lines of marching staccato. Whether earthy or orchestral, smooth or rough, the chance to hear so many piano trios in such a short time will surely bring unexpected, even if ultimately unresolved, synergy.

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