The Outsider is Refraction’s fourth album since 2015’s As We Were (Rare Colour Records). It can’t have been an easy task, maintaining a working trio whose individual members each have their own busy careers. Pianist Brenton Foster was recipient of the 2018 PBS FM Young Elder of Jazz award, and his second album released under his own name The Nature of Light won Best Jazz Album at The Age Victoria Music awards. Drummer and nominal leader Chris Broomhead, since recording this session, has relocated to Nashville, Tennessee. Still, at four albums in, The Outsider reflects an on-going commitment to building a body of work intent on exploring the great tradition of the piano trio, as epitomized by the work of artists such as Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau, the Esbojrn Svensson Trio, or The Necks. What connects these diverse artists – and they all exhibit very different approaches – is their dedication to giving over years to performing as a trio, facilitating the development of a unique language, born out of subtle interplay and telepathic communication.
The Outsider’s title track kicks off the album, unfurling a catchy piano theme that soon finds itself overwhelmed by Jordan Tarento’s buzzing electrified bass. When the theme returns, it does so with an unexpected resonance, emotive and full of yearning. Foster’s touch is light and assured, possessed of great beauty and a compelling urgency. Broomhead’s drums dance and skitter throughout, rarely drawing attention to themselves, while Tarento’s bass comes to the fore toward the end, soloing over fading piano.
Released as a single, ‘Whiskey in New Orleans’ adds some genuine funk to proceedings. With its repeated bass line over second-line drumming, the piece ushers in a backbeat that encourages Foster to roam up and down the keyboard, punching notes that ratchet-up the rhythmic pulse. It’s unexpectedly groove-laden, albeit in a precise and minimalist piano trio kind-of-way.
‘Closer’, on the other hand, is a genuinely romantic piece, moving snails-pace via piano and bass whispers, underpinned by dulcet brushes and cymbals. The album’s longest piece, ‘Tacit Green’, unfolds in a more abstract manner, Foster’s piano in exploratory mode, nudged by a loose, noodling drum and bass.
Refraction’s lyrical approach – always present – is to the fore on the album. The trio favours melody as a springboard for improvisation, often rolling out a motif and then returning to it repeatedly, with minor variation. Tracks like ‘Stateside’ are constructed architecturally, incrementally building and layering instrumentation with a slow-burn intensity. The trio’s melodic propensity is beautifully evidenced on ‘Evensong’, with Foster’s piano generating a rhythmic pulse that is near to a deep ache, melancholic-like. Refraction’s music, with its sparse and minimalist properties, has much in common with European counterparts found on Manfred Eicher’s ECM label, such as Anat Fort trio or Bobo Stenson trio.
The eleven tracks on The Outsider rarely outstay their welcome, the longest running to just over seven minutes. All bar two were composed by Broomhead. Overall, there is a contemplative and ruminative quality to the album, a feel of abundant spaciousness. While this has been a feature of all four Refraction albums to date, the trio have chosen to heighten this feel by recording The Outsider in a church the Balwyn Gospel Chapel rather than in a studio. The resulting music resounds with warmth, as if evoking the high-vaulted arches of the surrounds.
Whether Refraction can maintain the pace of recording they have managed over the past five years remains to be seen. What is beyond dispute is that over the course of four albums they have developed and honed the exemplary qualities we associate with the art of the piano trio: in this case a capacity for melding melodic invention with improvisation. Surely that is an art worth pursuing.