Mixed messages

3play+ do what they wanna; Melody Gardot follows her instincts
By JON GARELICK  |  June 2, 2009

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FREE + FORM As 3play+, Grenadier, Rosen, Molinari, and Pellitteri want to play it all.

Given the sound of its first track (which is also the title of the album), you'd have every reason to think that 3play+'s debut CD is about to plunge you into Bill Frisell–style Americana. Rolling piano chords, subdued electric guitar, muted trumpet, and that easy waltz tempo set you up for country. But then the next track of American Waltz (ZiggleZaggle Music) starts with a concise off-the-beat drum intro and a jagged unison trumpet/tenor-sax line. Bebop, right? Next up: free-flying trumpet over bass and drums, not a chord progression in sight — free jazz that gets even more tumultuous as the piano comes in. Then a ballad that sounds as if it could come out of the Great American Songbook, that muted trumpet again, a beautifully shaped melody and chord progression, ripe for lyrics. And that's not to mention the 20-minute closing track, the first 10 minutes or so of which are completely free before it settles into a funk-blues vamp.

So, where are we? There's no telling, and that's how 3play+ like it. When I confront 3play+ pianist/composer Josh Rosen with my confusion over coffee at a Fenway Starbucks, he seems delighted. Not at my confusion, exactly, but at the mix of influences and styles I'm picking up on. "That's what we wanted."

Of course, there are practicalities involved in programming an album with a mix of free and straight-ahead and touches of country and folk. "Hardly anyone is up for an hour of free jazz," Rosen concedes. "You have to offer moments of relief."

But it's also an honest reflection of the band's æsthetic. Rosen, for one, came up in the '70s, living in New York, partaking heavily of the avant-garde Lower East Side jazz-loft scene while hitting legendary Greenwich Village jazz boîte Bradley's to hear pianists like Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones, and Kenny Barron. He took it all in. "I always ask my students," says the Berklee prof, " 'Who did you go to hear this week?' Half the time they just say, 'Oh, we didn't go out.' " And he's incredulous. "That's where you learn! And not just the playing, but the vibe, the interactions, the conversation."

3play+ started as a jam-session band — friends who lived near one another getting together to play once a week at one of their houses. At that time, circa 2001, it was Rosen, bassist Lello Molinari, and drummer Ralph Rosen (no relation). Various players came and went before the band locked in as a trio (3play) with drummer Marcello Pellitteri and appeared monthly at the Zeitgeist Gallery (later to become the Lily Pad, where they return on the 18th). Eventually trumpeter Phil Grenadier (+) became a regular.

Despite their eclectic tastes and often free excursions — most live sets start like that final 20-minute track, "Bulletrain," gradually finding their way to a particular tune — this is a band of seasoned pros with a cohesive group identity. On the album, Grenadier's in-the-moment poise and Miles-like lyricism are complemented by guest turns from saxophonist George Garzone and guitar sage Mick Goodrick. At ease with free playing, they all have an affinity for strong forms. And Rosen knows how to write them. Take that second-track bebopper, "Buttah." The melody was inspired by Sonny Rollins's "Oleo," but with the pitches altered so that it would keep moving through different keys, Ornette Coleman style. And if Rosen's comping behind the soloists sounds familiar, that's because it's built on the chord changes of Coltrane's "Giant Steps." "It wasn't until I finished the tune that I realized it was inspired by three saxophonists."

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