Plaistow: Live At Bimhuis

On paper, Plaistow, founded in Geneva, Switzerland a decade ago by pianist Johann Bourquenez, double-bassist Vincent Ruiz, and drummer Cyril Bondi, gives the impression of being your typical piano jazz trio. But drop the needle on Live At Bimhuis, Plaistow's fifth album and first non-studio recording, and you'll quickly discover that its approach to the jazz trio concept is disarmingly original. In place of the customary ‘head-solos-head' format, the group executes each of the album's four compositions (all taken, incidentally, from Titan, Plaistow's previous release, whose fourteen tracks were inspired by and named after the moons of Saturn) as a singular, multi-limbed entity collectively intent on achieving a particular goal.

There's little soloing in the usual sense. Instead, the three channel their respective energies (and egos) into creating a total sound effect. In the opening track, “Hyperion,” Bourquenez generates clusters of piano layers that are eventually reinforced by the rhythm section's motorik pulse, the overall outcome more suggestive of a well-oiled machine than a standard trio of jazz improvisers. The subsequent piece, “Phoebe,” develops out of a simple, single-note piano ostinato that Bondi mirrors methodically on his kit; slowly, however, that inauspicious intro gathers momentum until swing gradually surfaces and a funkier side of the group asserts itself. At no time do the three deviate from the plan, and any urge to indulge in individual ego is kept firmly in check by their commitment to the overall sound. As it turns out, though the group took its name, surprisingly enough, from a track on a Squarepusher LP, Plaistow has more in common with the ‘live techno' trio Elektro Guzzi than the conventional jazz trio, given the degree to which both outfits turn into machine-like organisms the moment their respective members start playing together.

It's a tricky strategy for a piano trio to challenge convention so determinedly, and even riskier, one might think, to do so in front of a live crowd. But Amsterdam's Bimhuis is no ordinary, run-of-the-mill venue, and its listeners are as receptive and open-minded an audience as any group could hope to play for. To the credit of both the group and the attendees, Plaistow resists any pressure to play to the crowd, so to speak; instead, the trio works patiently through extended passages of rumination and, eschewing histrionics, the members work together to shape a piece and let it unfold where it naturally will. “Lapetus,” for instance, advances slowly as the pianist explores multiple directions, with the bassist and drummer sensitively supporting Bourquenez as he ventures into exotic areas before returning to dark, clustering shores. The closing “Helene” pushes the concept to its seeming limit when he repeats a single piano chord over and over, the interval between each utterance so large it allows room for additional piano treatments to be explored within those spaces.

On this beautiful blue vinyl pressing (issued in a 300-copy run), Plaistow charts its own course and is proud, one presumes, to see itself as a unit that has little in common with others in its category, even if on paper it might appear to do so. Theirs is a deceptively low-key, one might even say minimalistic approach that in its own way turns out to be rather radical. As Richard Williams so astutely notes on the inner sleeve, “This is a great time for piano trios, but there really isn't another one quite like Plaistow.”

January 2017