Review by Dan Sheehan
Odysseys is the third and latest release from the Ben Winkelman Trio, following on from Stomps, Pieces and Variations (2005) and The Spanish Tinge (2007).
The album provides further proof, if any were necessary, that Winkelman occupies a truly unique and importance space as a contemporary composer, improviser and bandleader. His music is greatly informed by early jazz traditions, and Latin and Afro-Cuban styles, but this is no mere melting pot of influences; Winkelman’s compositions carefully sift through these elements with an explorative, playful sense of imagination, resulting in a forward-thinking confluence between tradition and innovation.
At the same time as Winkelman’s mastery of these piano styles is immediately evident, there also exists a sense of youthful euphoria in their execution – sometimes cheeky, sometimes fascinatingly complex, these montunos and stride patterns always emerge organically from within the overall compositional narrative, and always with a freshness of discovery that cannot come from mere imitation.
It is a testament to Winkelman’s vision for these pieces that stride, montunos and various rhythmic tangents can be found sitting side-by-side in a way which only enhances, rather than confuses, the narrative they belong to. At the same time, the dynamic interplay and symbiosis between Winkelman, Anning and Vanderwal allows for their flawless execution.
My experience of listening to this album was strongly defined by the trio’s constantly evolving rhythmic landscape. ‘The Seven Odyssey’ stands out in the way it steadfastly avoids any thought of predictability. It opens under the pretense of an invitation, but an arpeggiated, downward-spiraling theme soon encapsulates with its rhythmic invention, and with it the listener is whisked away on an eleven-minute voyage. Interludes from Vanderwal prompt numerous changes in direction, teasing and almost encouraging an overstimulation of the aural senses before settling into a more consistent groove as Winkelman’s solo unfolds over an oscillating rhythmic setting.
Vanderwal’s solo introduction to ‘Vampires’ anticipates darker chords and textures, and the melody, once established, passes to the bass and becomes an underpinning figure, allowing Winkelman to experiment with mood and colour. This track typifies a common device in Winkelman’s writing – with an almost twisted sense of humour, the most innocent and quirky little motifs and patterns can quickly morph into something completely unexpected.
Engaging, and at times absorbingly meditative possibilities are offered by combining percussive techniques of each instrument to create interlocking complexities. This is demonstrated on the track ‘Quandaries’, where at its peak Winkelman’s chordal punctuations, grounded by the warmth of Anning’s bass, join Vanderwal’s fierce latin drumming to create an irrepressible groove.
The trio’s softer side is highlighted on ‘Dislocation’, a ballad which unfolds with much space to breathe around Winkelman’s poetic melodies. The piece affords a moment of introspective questioning as both the piano and bass come to the fore, the latter with an intimate sense of self-realisation that floats over Vanderwal’s brushwork.
Anning’s clear tone and natural melodic phrasing are again on display during a short bass solo in ‘Stevie’s Warm Chords’. This tune’s chordal theme pushes forward with a sense of urgency, which is expanded upon during the piano solo, where Winkelman’s exciting linear dexterity takes flight over the rhythm section’s driving support.
All of the album’s nine tracks are worthy of repeated listening, and the trio’s imaginative attention to detail is evident throughout, consistently offering subtle possibilities and surprises. All three players are exceptionally skilled, and the group as a whole demonstrates a remarkably clear purpose and vision for its music. At a generous running time of almost 70 minutes, Odysseys is a no-holds-barred exploration of the exciting rhythmic potential of a modern piano trio.
Ben Winkelman – piano
Sam Anning – bass
Ben Vanderwal – drums