The dazzling piano trios of Pandelis Karayorgis and Sam Harris

Pandelis Karayorgis (photo:  Peter Gannushkin/ ) and Sam Harris (photo: John Rogers)

Pandelis Karayorgis (photo: Peter Gannushkin/ and Sam Harris (photo: John Rogers)

Every year as I feebly compile a list of my favorite albums I experience plenty of ridiculous anxiety, trying to cram my ears full of releases I'd only previously skimmed or missed altogether. Of course, after such a list is finished such records start making an impression upon me, and this time was no exception. A handful of superb piano trios were among the things that occupied a bunch of listening time as the year wound down, and they didn't make an appearance because I had pretty much solidified my choices. So I'm here to give them some warranted attention.

I've long been a fan of Boston pianist Pandelis Karayorgis, a deeply thoughtful improviser who's always deftly and imaginatively braided influences from the past like Lennie Tristano and Ran Blake with contemporary ideas, whether from modern classical music or abstract free improv. Living in Chicago provided lots of exposure to his playing through his connections to players like Ken Vandermark, Guillermo Gregorio, and Nate McBride, among others; Karayorgis has been involved in many groups and configurations with locals across the years. In 2018 the label he operates with reedist Jorrit Dijkstra, Driff, dropped two terrific trio recordings made with different rhythm sections and different modus operandi.

Cliff features four extended improvisations recorded in June of last year with bassist Damon Smith--who moved to Boston a few years ago--and drummer Eric Rosenthal, a percussionist who's worked with the pianist for several decades. The music churns with a very organic kind of ebb-and-flow, seething and simmering within a narrow space as much as it trudges and leaps forward. The players reveal a deeply interactive methodology that avoids reactive procedures. As you can hear for yourself on the opening piece "Trio 1," below, there are dynamically wild swings in terms of pace and density. Spontaneous phrases are dissected, passed around from instrument to instrument or parsed all at once; this musician or that go profoundly, temporarily silent; Karayorgis inserts a terse chunk of melody or embarks on a linear jag that gives a performance a more concrete sensibility only to morph into something far more elusive. Energy accelerates and recedes, like breath, but the proceedings neither embrace inchoate fury or sleepy inertia--there's always refined activity at play, allowing the listener to sit in on some very subtle dialogues.

A month late the pianist paired-up with bassist McBride and drummer Luther Gray for an informal house session to make the music on Pools (notice the Steve Lacy-like titling aesthetic on these albums), this time grappling with a slate of original tunes--in addition to a group improvisation and a loose blues. I will admit I prefer Karayorgis in this context a bit more, if only because I love his elegantly sprawling, slow-moving themes--even the all-improvised "Last One" clings to some pretty intangible shapes, driven by an inexorable sense of forward motion. On a deliciously fragile tune such as "Entanglement" a gently distended melody is draped over an elastic groove that's in perpetual flux, with changing rhythmic accents, spasms of bass notes, and sudden jacked-up swing patterns; it gives the pianist a vast canvas to splatter sound, including hushed, glassy constellations and frenetic, left-handed runs that suggest early Cecil Taylor. On "allbyitself" the pianist recalls Paul Bley's penchant for spreading notes over a crawling pace--a jagged rhythmic skeleton carved out by McBride and Gray--with painterly grace and concision, mixing things up well-placed chord sequences. Below you can check out the opening piece, the vaguely Monk-ish "Roil."

Finally, there is Harmony, a five-track, 30-minute suite by trio led by pianist Sam Harris. Although it turns out that I've heard his playing before on recordings by Ambrose Akinmusire and Ergo, his named didn't click when I came across it in Giovanni Russonello's year-end survey in the New York Times. I scribbled down his name, but before I did any research I got an email from the pianist about a week later with a link to the digital-only recording. It truly knocked me out. I checked out the 2014 debut Harris dropped called Interludes (Fresh Sound New Talent) with the same rhythm section (bassist Martin Nevin and drummer Craig Weinrib) along with saxophonists Roman Filiu and Ben van Gelder and second bassist Ross Gallagher, but while some of the same slow-motion ideas are present, it lacks the refined precision of Harmony, which sounds like nothing else I heard all year.

On first listen the music reminded me of what the veteran improvising trio the Necks do, with Harris playing subtle but steady variations of a simple lick, perpetually altering note combinations, until hypnotically twinkling upper register trills and glissandos generate a mesmerizing vibe that could almost sound new age, but then the striated arco lines of Nevin and quietly splashing cymbals from Weinrib add some friction. None of the tracks have titles, other than "Harmony 1," which flows seamlessly into "Harmony II," where the blues phrasing and rolling left hand piano figures suggest a vibe somewhere between Abdullah Ibrahim and Vince Guaraldi, but Harris eschews ornamentation and instead cleaves to a very instinctual simplicity built from repetition powered by his tactful rhythm section. The five movements all feel meticulously connected, even though each contains a discrete melodic core, but what really holds it all together is a masterfully pitched dynamic--this trio is seriously locked in--and it helps the pianist deconstruct, caress, chisel, and reassemble the sophisticated yet elemental lines without a tremor or pause. The group taps into something so basic and profound that I find it impossible to ignore and deeply satisfying to get lost within. Below you can check out the gospel-tinged movement, "Harmony IV."

Today's playlist:

John Zorn, The Hermetic Organ: St. Paul's Chapel, NYC (Tzadik)

Various artists, Looking Forward: the Roots of Big Star Featuring Chris Bell (Omnivore)

António Sanches, Buli Povo! (Analog Africa/Táki-Tálá)

Mary Halvorson Quartet, Paimon: Plays Masada Book Two (Tzadik)

Ensemble Recherche, Isabel Mundry: Traces des Moments (Kairos)