It’s probably a good sign that my immediate impulse for an opening line to this post are the three words “Caught the excellent…” With the exception that I’m fairly sure I used this same killer opening (ha) in my recent post on Erik Deutsche at Velvet Lounge! The second week of January must be killing-jazz-piano-players-in-DC week, as this wayward blogger in fact did catch the very cool (hmm, enough variety?) Baptiste Trotignon Trio at the French Embassy in DC (natch) this past Tuesday night. Still can’t believe this one was free – and if you live in the DC area do check out some of their other upcoming (free!) offerings; it’s really a gorgeous acoustical space and they program neat things (like the Suspicious Cheeselords singing Renaissance music of French composer Jean Mouton in 2008.)

In front of a packed house, Trotignon’s trio (feat. two highly melodic, virtuosic players in New Zealand-born, NYC-based, big-fan-of-Burgundy-wines Matthew Penman on bass, and groovelicious veteran Gregory Hutchinson on drums) swung effortlessly and joyfully through a set of mostly Trotignon originals. I was struck by the strong emphasis on melody inherent in Trotignon’s writing. (Dare I say catchy?) And although there was a really terrific piece in 7/8 (Trotignon had the luxury of speaking exclusively in French, but YouTube tells me it’s titled Grey), most pieces stayed within a dependable metric groove and things never went too far out in terms of form. (Although amidst the overwhelmingly positive post-show buzz in the lobby, I think I overheard a few society ladies who had just witnessed the outest music of their lives.) Outside of the originals, the trio offered up a smashing rendition of Thelonious Monk’s classic off-kilter “Trinkle, Tinkle,” and as an encore, played their only standard of the evening, the gorgeous “I Fall In Love Too Easily.”

I hadn’t heard of Baptiste Trotignon prior to seeing the post on this event, so wasn’t quite sure what to expect – but I think the only thing I needed to sell me (outside of the coolness of the venue and afore-mentioned freeness!) was reading an Amazon review of one of his albums which compares him to Keith Jarrett. And having written on Jarrett (have I plugged my thesis enough? yeesh) I’m obviously interested in pianists who filter forward Jarrett’s rather dominating, if perhaps unconscious influence – so it’s personally fascinating for me to try to pick up traces of Jarrett in young musicians.

Sidenote: I spoke briefly with Trotignon after the concert and he seemed to not have much use for my Jarrett comparison. Certainly, listeners make free associations which might not always have a basis in terms of real-life influence, at least on a conscious level, and also I understand how young musicians looking to break out with their own thing probably get tired of being told that they “sound like” whomever. That said, Jarrett is the pianist who comes to mind in terms of offering a performance comparison to Trotignon – which obviously, is high praise – and further solidifying the connection is Trotignon’s relationship with great Italian drummer Aldo Romano, who the young Jarrett worked with in the late 60s. I’ll try to depart from comparisons henceforth, but ultimately I heard this trio reaching for an improvisational freedom similar to the one Jarrett’s trio mastered long ago, even more so with regard to their frequent use of vamps to end or segue between tunes.

One thing that good jazz can offer is the excitement (and implied danger of failure!) of hearing top-skilled players manufacture chemistry on the spot – and although this trio hasn’t been playing together all that long, their interactions felt easy and truly integrated into a compelling musical whole. That jazz as “international language” thing – usually I blanch at easy metaphors like this, but in this case it’s true – among modern musical forms, it seems jazz best offers a context within which musicians from three unrelated parts of the globe (Trotignon, from the Loire region of France, Penman from New Zealand, and Brooklyn-born Hutchinson) can “dialogue” within a common language without having to use words. American-born, but embraced by the world. Nice to know we’re known for more than just starting wars, right?

Similar to Jarrett, Trotignon carries lots of American gospel influences heaped in with his Bill Evans-inspired harmonic shading, obvious traces of bebop, and a palpable, driving sense of swing, displayed on a few brisk uptempo pieces. Technically, he seems the equal of any of the current reigning champs of the mainstream jazz piano world – outside of Jarrett there are obvious affinities to Brad Mehldau, and perhaps even more accurately, Trotignon’s sort-of-countryman Jacky Terrasson, who I remember watching from the front row of the Village Vanguard with my entranced, non-musical father a few years back. I imagine Trotignon, already a young star and award-winner in Europe, will continue to break through the American jazz market.

On a different level, continuing my recent fascination with audience “behavior” and the presentation of art music, and notwithstanding the high calibre of the music, I must say the crowd struck me as subdued, especially after the enthusiasm of the young crowd at the Erik Deutsch show. Obviously a concert at the French Embassy is going to attract a different crowd than Velvet Lounge, but the difference in tone couldn’t have been more striking, seeing these shows in close proximity to each other. There’s this habit I picked up at Eastman – for lack of a better word I’ll call it “wooing” – a high-pitched call which musicians would frequently shout out both during improvised solos and during post-tune applause. I hear it all the time at concerts attended by young-ish jazz players and fans and practically speaking, it seems a neat way for listeners to let musicians know they’re actually listening and engaging with the sounds. Shouldn’t surprise me, but somehow it did – out of hundreds of people at the Embassy, no “wooing.” (Except from me. And I think I urged some on during the final bows.) I’m not sure if this is significant, but for me it underscored this dynamic of presenting jazz (or any other improvised music) at the concert hall, in front of how-shall-we-say less “hip” (is that what I mean?) audiences. Again, there’s that very clear dividing line again between performer and audience, perhaps set in bolder relief in this environment – I know in theater circles this is a hot topic, but I wonder if in jazz we have any way of breaking down this barrier? I think it’s one of the things that keeps audiences intimidated, and ultimately, away from our music. Thoughts? Anyone? Bueller?