David Baker’s new jazz album Minus Piano is just that. A trio without a piano, or any chordal instrument like guitar or orchestra. The lack of lush harmony usually provided by these instruments strips down the compositions that, coupled with creative arrangements, expose their beauty.
Baker, ironically, chose to feature songs written by pianists on an album entitled Minus Piano. Released on Moddl Records, he chose tunes from non-keyboardists like Frank Loesser too, but the title stems from his inclusions of compositions by Count Basie, McCoy Tyner, and Thelonius Monk to name a few. Whether they played in orchestras or as soloists, Baker, a bassist, recognizes that these pianists stood out as composers and not just performers.
His stripped-down approach shows a good tune doesn’t need bells and whistles, even when they were originally performed with them. In fact, Baker seems to be demonstrating that sometimes those bells and whistles drown-out the tune itself.
A striking example is Baker’s interpretation of Basie’s “Shiny Stockings.” Traditionally, it’s played as an easy, relaxed swing by a big band, with luscious horns swelling throughout. But Baker’s trio approaches the piece with an afro-cuban groove. Basie’s traditional version is like a stroll in the park, but Baker, along with tenor saxophonist Joel Harris and drummer Sarute Wijitwechakarn, weave us through traffic on I-25.
Without a chordal instrument to lift him, Harris takes the job of providing a strong sense of harmony. In “Almost Like Being In Love,” he seizes the absence of chords and shreds through any scale his sax can fit into a phrase. Without another instrument dictating the colors of the harmony, Harris plays the tones he wants, carrying the tune admirably.
Without the density of a chordal instrument, the arrangements allow space, and the band is comfortable with that. In Ray Charles’ “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” their sparseness exaggerates the song’s bluesiness, bringing out the soul without the heft of Charles’ gospel choir.
I admit that occasionally the music felt bare, like mashed potatoes without gravy, but the album serves its purpose: I appreciated the tunes themselves more after hearing them without their iconic arrangements. Minus Piano reminds us that when it’s the good stuff, you don’t need cream in that coffee.