CD Review: An Accumulation of Subtleties (Mike Nock Trio)

An Accumulation of Subtleties

FWM Records, 2010
Mike Nock Trio
An Accumulation of Subtleties (2 CDs)

CD Review by Phil Sandford

An Accumulation of Subtleties marks 50 years of recording for Mike Nock and finds him returning to the trio format that launched his career with the Three Out in Sydney in 1960. It also coincides with the release of Norman Meehan’s excellent biography of the pianist/composer: Serious Fun: The Life and Music of Mike Nock (Wellington University Press).

The piano trio has established itself firmly in the jazz tradition through artists such as Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau. Sometimes with piano, bass and guitar (Art Tatum, Nat King Cole and early Peterson) but increasingly with piano, bass and drums, the format has proved capable of numerous variations, sometimes with all three instruments playing an equal role. In the Evans’ trios, for example, the bass players often played melodic lines instead of even notes on the beat and the drummers played with increasing complexity.

In 1960, Nock was a member of the house band at the Embers in Melbourne when the Oscar Peterson Trio, with Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen, stunned audiences with their rhythmic power and technical facility in performances such as ‘Softly as in a Morning Sunrise’, a tune Nock was to perform on his maiden album.

Many other influences were to come into play in Nock’s later development such as Cecil Taylor, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner and Ornette Coleman and he has recorded in a variety of settings, but periodically returns to the piano trio.

The CDs include some freely improvised pieces, four Nock originals and some standards. The first CD consists mainly of freely improvised pieces by the trio, while the second CD, recorded live at the Sound Lounge in Sydney, adopts a more conventional, but no less exciting, approach.

Unlike some more one-dimensional exponents of free music, Nock’s trio focuses on developing a series of moods and tonal colours.

Unlike some more one-dimensional exponents of free music, Nock’s trio focuses on developing a series of moods and tonal colours. This is not an easy music to play, requiring players with considerable skill and the ability to listen to and continually interact with each other.

As Keith Jarrett says on the cover notes to Always Let Me Go, in a comment that could have been written for this CD: ‘We need to be even more in tune with each other to play this way, without material; and even more attentive. Every possibility is available if you take away the tunes, but only some are valid under the circumstances. It is only sensitivity to the flux that determines whether the music succeeds or fails.’

Keith Jarrett is one of the few pianists apart from Nock who have employed this approach in a trio format (Changes 1983, Changeless 1987, Inside Out 2000, Always Let Me Go 2001).

In free performances with his trio Jarrett sometimes employs a device from his solo concerts: a bass ostinato in time over which he improvises freely.

Nock has used another approach in pieces like ‘Upline’ where the players are free to improvise using fragments from the melody in whatever way they choose.

Here he uses another approach again, previously seen on his Not We But One (1996) and Changing Seasons (2001), where the players have a blank canvas and have to mutually create a work from scratch. Free playing has been part of Nock’s armoury since the 1960s and it is not accidental that his first stop on arriving in New York in 1961 was to go and hear Ornette Coleman. As Jarrett says: ‘Those of us who experimented a lot with so-called “free” playing in the 60s have years of experience to bring to it again…’

The four freely improvised pieces on the CDs illustrate the wide range of emotions and colours available to the trio when when working in this way.

‘Joyous Awakening’ opens quietly before moving into a slightly gospel feel and ends with sustained piano chords.

One of the more abstract pieces, ‘Rite of Passage’ opens with fluttering brush strokes on the drums, moves into jagged piano lines and concludes with an arco bass passage.

In ‘Makeru Ga Kachi’ classical-sounding piano chords give way to a medium tempo section before piano chords over a repetitive bass pattern subside into silence.

‘Apotheosis’ is a powerful piece and one of the album highlights. It begins gently with rippling bass patterns from Ben Waples and moves into a quiet percussive section. Building in intensity the group move into time and climax in a triumphant finale with tremolo piano chords.

The CDs also contains four excellent originals to add to Nock’s already extensive body of compositions.

‘An Accumulation of Subtleties’ opens calmly with an introduction leading into a beautiful and deceptively simple melody. After solos from Nock and Ben Waples the piece concludes as it began.

The haunting ‘Elsewhen’ has a repeated descending phrase reminiscent of pieces on Nock’s classic Ondas (1981), while ‘Beautiful Stranger’ has a latin feel and the driving ‘A Tree has its Heart in its Roots’ lets the trio stretch out.

Nock often uses jazz standards from writers such as Wayne Shorter and Richie Powell and in Russ Freeman’s ‘The Wind’ he finds a vehicle for his rich harmonic sense.

Another jazz standard, Gigi Gryce’s ‘House of Blue Lights’ (originally recorded by Gryce as ‘Blue Lights’), is a medium tempo minor blues. After working with Jusef Lateef in the early 1960s the blues is an important component of Nock’s playing and his solo here demonstrates his mastery of the form.

Nock freely interprets the line of ‘The Gypsy’, a 1945 pop song that was recorded the following year by Charlie Parker in the ‘Lover Man’ sessions, and then proceeds to dig in as the group sets up a big groove to finish off the CD.

With Ben and James Waples Nock has found creative musicians who ably complement his playing in the more traditional trio setting and contribute on an equal basis in the free pieces.

Nock’s playing throughout is warm and confident. After a stellar career he does not need to impress and continues to write and play thoughtful and interesting music.

As he comments in the Meehan biography: ‘Finding your own voice is more important than technique or chops or any of that.’ This excellent CD confirms again that Nock has indeed found his own voice and is on a musical journey which continues to excite.

Mike Nock piano
Ben Waples double bass
James Waples drums

Purchase and read a review of Serious Fun: The Life and Music of Mike Nock

Or read an old article by Miriam Zolin (nearly published in Downbeat!) from 2003 ‘Mike Nock and the cure for what ails you’

If you’d like to read interviews with Mike Nock in extempore, you need Issue 1. The photo on this page is available in Issue 5. See how to purchase a back issue here >