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‘Ramshackle Serenade’ highlights jazz leadership amongst trio of vets

Larry Goldings, Peter Bernstein, Bill Stewart “Ramshackle Serenade” album [May 27, 2014 German Pirouet Records]

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We have developed a group sound in a completely natural way instead of having a sound that is dominated by the organ. Maybe it’s because of the respect we have for one another as musicians with strong personalities. —Larry Goldings

Organist Larry Goldings, guitarist Peter Bernstein, and drummer Bill Stewart have played together for two decades. Their new album, “Ramshackle Serenade,” shows the tightness of the bond and the essence of their graceful style.
Konstantin Kern

Larry Goldings, Peter Bernstein, and Bill Stewart don’t need a fancy name to describe their jazz trio for their new, May 27, 2014 album on the German Pirouet Records label. They stand by their names, side by side — on the album cover and inside the music.

Together, this organ-guitar-drum trio has weathered two decades of music, still standing strong. They’re one of the most solid, long-lasting bands around. It’s because they genuinely like and respect one another as people, and as musicians.

Ramshackle Serenade represents nine fully realized compositions (versatile covers and original tracks) that show the listener the depth of the regard.

Well-known as a favorite collaborator not just with his organ trio but other artists (Sara Gazarek’s Blossom & Bee), the classically-raised Goldings penned three of the most original-sounding songs off this album, including the intriguing title track. He acknowledged the play on words signifying a conflict of meaning. One day, the American author Mark Twain and one of his most famous characters, Huckleberry Finn, came to mind out of the blue. Goldings liked the conflict for the title of the song and the theme of the band’s album, the double-take on light and dark, tension and ease, in Finn’s ramshackle home by the creek and the elaborations of the deeper inner world he lives in, as reflected in this music.

“As I was looking for a title for the song, I thought about Mark Twain—I don’t know exactly why,” Goldings explained. “Maybe I felt there was a bit of Americana in the piece. As I was busy with Twain, I came across the word ‘ramshackle,’ which seemed to fit to the spirit of the piece. There is this melodic counter-movement that appears to continually peel away, and the piece has something fragile about it. But it is also lyrical, so it seems totally appropriate to contrast it with a word like ‘serenade.’ We all wanted it as the album’s title. I think that sometimes we as a band let feelings of dissolution and chaos meet up with strength and beauty. It’s fun to take something beautiful and harmonically and rhythmically turn it around so that certain darker shadows mix in. Tension is crucial when you want to make good music.”

The band is tight-knit from years and years of good play. The other artists they’ve worked with also inform the good music and the choices in the cover selections, as well as the leanings toward certain ragamuffin styles.

Two have played with John Scofield and Maceo Parker (James Brown), just to name a few. Grammy-nominated Goldings’ list of associates is impressively varied: Tracy Chapman, John Mayer, James Taylor, Christina Aguilera, Elton John, Jack DeJohnette, and Michael Brecker. He’s also done scores of movies and appeared in at least one, Clint Eastwood’s documentary, Johnny Mercer: The Dream’s On Me.

Bernstein’s just as well-versed. Jim Hall and Lou Donaldson basically gave him his first two big breaks. He went on to play with Jimmy Cobb, Diana Krall, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Sonny Rollins, Lee Konitz, and Brad Mehldau.

One of the coolest drummers has to be Stewart. He lays back and grooves, then comes on like a sudden summer storm with amazing fire in a flurry of kicks and flicks. Ever since making the move from Iowa to New York City, Stewart’s been on a roll, assembling serious music with Pat Metheny, Chris Potter, John Lovano, and Steve Swallow.

Considered one of the best organ trios by critics and fellow musicians, Goldings, Bernstein and Stewart’s music is a joy to listen to because they derive joy from playing together. “Pete is one of those improvisers who really comes right to the point; his solos are full of superb melodies. Larry hears everything. He’s incredibly quick and responds to everything that happens in the music,” Stewart lauded. And Goldings thinks Stewart is “one of the greatest drummers in jazz.” When Stewart goes off, the organist said he has the best seat in the house. He’s just as effusive about Bernstein as a guitarist.

They’ve taken care to cover songs they really enjoy, which they can properly devote to. The old standard, “Sweet And Lovely” by Gus Arnheim, Neil Moret, and Harry Tobias, is just that. The song never stops moving. Each musician in the trio throws his weight around while the others jump on a new groove enthusiastically. It’s not about taking turns on solos so much as it is about solo interplays — all continuously lobbing a lopsided but engaging melodic spark around.

Horace Silver’s “Peace” gently skips along on a river of well-coated tones and shifting rhythms. The musicians get to show their flair while seamlessly comping — as if in the moment — on the melodic plays that result. Goldings’ organ jumps and bubbles as guitarist Bernstein goes soft in the middle, prodding the dramatic departures toward some greater purpose.

The first track, “Roach,” asserts powerful jazz-blues tension and release in the trio’s concentrated interplay. They go to a subterranean, cavernous space deeper and deeper in the hits to capture the marvelous asides of the original bebop king, drummer Max Roach. How this trio manages to cloak itself fully in bluesy notes without abandoning jazz roots is another marvel. Kudos to Goldings for this original honor.

As if blues, bebop, and madcap classical-avant-garde weren’t enough, the trio balances out in an evenly keeled Jobim number, “Luiza.” They fully embrace the sensual undertones of the music, rather than overplay. With the grounding splashes of Stewart’s drumming, the trio uplifts the bossa nova jazz in spacious grandeur equally.

Stewart is also the glue to hold the band in one piece on several offbeat tracks, including the illusory-bursting “Mr. Meagles (Goldings),” inspired by a famous actor and his dog the band ran into at the Village Vanguard.

Larry Goldings, Peter Bernstein, and Bill Stewart play together in every sense of the word. They solo and interplay as one unit, from two decades’ worth of integration. You can almost see their mutual enjoyment in the music. You will definitely feel it.