The ultimate in acoustic jazz cool, oh since at least Ahmad Jamal’s heyday, the piano trio – a configuration brought back to life in classic clothes by Keith Jarrett’s standards trio, then practically reinvented by EST from the 1990s on, and retooled for the hip-hop generation by Robert Glasper in the noughties – is still where it’s at for sheer experience. But what about 2015? Scroll down for a state of the art 5

1 Vijay Iyer trio, Break Stuff, ECM 

A working trio for 11 years Iyer here once again recording with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore.

This Manfred Eicher-produced affair recorded in New York in June last year includes a rhythmically engrossing tribute in ‘Hood’ to techno DJ/producer Robert Hood – a track that plays the same transformative role on Break Stuff as ‘Galang (Trio Riot Version)’ did in a different idiom on Historicity.

The title of Break Stuff refers to what pianist/composer Iyer describes, more obliquely than at first glance, is contained in the “break” as “the basis for breakdowns, break-beats, and break dancing... the moment when everything comes to life.” There may not be a lot of dance potential on this highly complex album where there’s no obvious beat – it’s all about flow – but certainly there is a sense of the unexpected in the jagged pauses, weighted phrases, tiny deafening silences, and runaway momentum of the material on the album some of which was premiered at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and some from Open City, a collaboration with writer Teju Cole.

Of the historical material Thelonious Monk tune ‘Work’ gets a look-in as well sounding fairly unMonk-like, a feat in itself, and there is also an excellent solo piano version of Strayhorn piece ‘Blood Count.’ The version of Coltrane’s ‘Countdown’ coming towards the end is elaborately introduced and unrecognisable to begin with, the interpretation itself delayed teasingly, the essence of the tune eventually captured very rewardingly.

Last year Iyer switched to ECM releasing Mutations, his first album for the label, a slightly elusive electro-acoustic chamber work shaped around a 10-part suite scored for string quartet, piano, and electronics. While that album sat firmly in the New Music and ‘contemporary classical’ domain tangentially retaining jazz-flavoured elements the long ‘Mutations’ suite was actually quite old music first performed in 2005. The music on Break Stuff is more recent and more jazz-grounded picking up where Accelerando left off. It's also more about the here and now, a state-of-the-art jazz piano trio album. No one sounds like them. 

And If you think how different the 2013 collaboration with Mike Ladd, Holding It Down: The Veterans’ Dreams Project sounds or in vivid contrast the recent Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi “magical realist” side to Iyer’s music, it’s easy to understand how fertile a musical imagination Iyer possesses and that is in these instances away from the talismanic unity of the trio. Yet this facility of imagination is also his and the trio’s strength particularly in performance whether in the studio or live: the unit clearly going from strength to strength as the language of jazz continues to be enriched in their hands.

2 Giovanni Guidi trio, This is the Day, ECM 

The second act for the City of Broken Dreams trio, the Italian pianist once again in the playing company of US double bassist Thomas Morgan and of Guidi’s fellow Rava-ite the Portuguese drummer João Lobo.

This time around there are lots of the pianist’s own tunes again, as a composer succinctness to the fore cloaked in an atmosphere of reverie. But the standard ‘I’m Through with Love’ is included too, pawed with glacially in all its loveliness; and also a selection here is Osvaldo Farrés’ ‘Quizás, quizás, quizás’ (aka ‘Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps’) plus a piece by Lobo. The standards provide a certain relief in one main sense in that you are able to listen to the pianist’s own tunes with different ears in so doing understanding them better given what he does with the known.

This is all extremely quiet music, recorded meticulously in Lugano in April last year. In this hushness a rustle of paper would be like an explosion. Yet beyond this basic aspect Guidi shares something in common with Enrico Pieranunzi in the lushness of his preferred voicings (if not his fellow Italian’s more swing and bop-attuned modern mainstream leaning) more than he does his extrovert labelmate Stefano Bollani.

The trio go free-form and out on a limb more on the Lobo tune ‘Baiiia,’ and that free-jazz thread resumes on the Bley-ish track ‘The Debate’. ‘Quizás, quizás, quizás’ is lighter, the fun bit such as it exists on a sometimes sombre album yet still somewhat reluctant, Lobo at his best.

The tenth track is a variation on the first tune. It’s instructive to listen to both together and out of sequence for some further insights as to how the material generates new ideas. One initial difference is the early bass intervention on the variation, this ‘Trilly’ theme of Guidi’s of Morricone quality.

Morgan reminds me of Palle Danielsson in the nobility of his tone and he introduces ‘The Night It Rained Forever,’ the beautiful final track with a long slightly dismal arco note, Lobo with mallets for raindrops, Guidi at last at his most bravura and emotional. This is the Day made me think of a comment in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall: “It’s not about joy, it’s about the memory of a joyful time that’s gone for ever.” Guidi knows more than most it seems that now is for realists but somehow still hears a rhapsody out there somewhere that he must respond to however modern the method and his own personal aesthetic. And it’s simply marvellous.

3 Aaron Goldberg The Now Sunnyside

A high performance bebop and Brazilian-flavoured trio set from the Harvard-educated 40-year-old pianist Aaron Goldberg in the company of his familiar playing partners Charles Lloyd double bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland.

Recorded for the large part in Brooklyn back in April, although three tracks date five years ago to a Swiss recording session, there’s a surprise at the end with guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel cropping up on the glassy ‘One Life,’ its melody obliquely bringing to mind the 1940s Jule Styne song ‘I Fall in Love Too Easily.’

The Now is accessible modern mainstream piano jazz rooted in templates laid down by the likes of Ahmad Jamal and in its more introspective moments Bill Evans, with hooky shifts and turns from Goldberg and some highly decorative phrases bubbling out of nowhere on opener Chico Buarque’s ‘Trocando em Miúdos’.

Goldberg’s approach to paraphrasing melody, though not as dark or as intense, resembles Brad Mehldau’s a little; the Bostonian’s own tunes, for instance ‘The Wind in the Night’, gently persuasive and not a little sentimental. The inclusion of Charlie Parker’s ‘Perhaps’ is a surprise, a tune Bird recorded in 1948 with Miles Davis, pianist John Lewis, bassist Curley Russell, and drummer Max Roach, Goldberg sticking roughly to the same tempo and giving it a feelgood spin. There’s a more serious almost baroque strictness to the Djavan song ‘Triste Baía Da Guanabara’ one of the Switzerland-recorded songs and a definite highlight, the scampering Warne Marsh rarity ‘Background Music’, which appeared on Lee Konitz with Warne Marsh, fast and dazzling. So, lots to luxuriate in all in all from a Rolls-Royce of a trio.

Dedication opens with the Glasper-ish ‘Elusive,’ not the typical sound of the album by any means. 

This Silver Spring, Maryland-born player who by the age of 11 had lost all his sight, revels in writing highly involving tunes whether anthemic on ‘B Dub’ or tuggingly heartfelt on ‘No Matter’, or even, in the ultimate test of any album in this idiom, the ability to be so natural on ‘For Clark’ dedicated to mentor Clark Terry.

Kauflin’s trio – with Christopher Smith on bass, and Billy Williams on drums – at heart is a cultured old-fashioned unit enhanced by guitarist Matt Stevens and also by nylon string guitarist Etan Haziza who guests on the homespun ‘Thank You Lord’ which boasts a gem of a bass solo feature by bassist Smith. I’d just as much prefer hearing the trio all the way through although the track order sequencing means the switch-abouts to go bigger or more intimate don’t disrupt. ‘Tempest’ is the track I’ll be returning to often, a beautifully rhapsodic trio piece along with the hymnal solo piano track ‘Mother’s Song,’ the cadences crisp and authoritative.

5 Kari Ikonen trio, Beauteous Tales and Offbeat Stories, Ozella

With a detail from a 16th century painting by Hieronymus Bosch on the cover rendered from the Triptych of the Temptation of St Anthony, a flipped representation of two figures riding on the back of a flying fish, two Finns and an Armenian come together in a combination as devastatingly effective as [em] in their pomp or the Helge Lien trio at their grittiest there is great flow here the ultimate requisite for a top piano trio. Exuberance, ideas, and above all trio empathy are all present and correct here, too.

Finnish pianist Kari Ikonen has a different style to his fellow Finn Iiro Rantala, perhaps a little more Herbie Hancock-inclined in the jazzier episodes and less overtly classical in his method although this latter side of his playing is clear say on the introduction to ‘The 4th Part of the Harbour Trilogy’. Like Rantala Ikonen knows how to run with an improvisation, the skill at speed on the sparkling if bizarrely titled ‘L’avant-midi d'une elfe’ quite something to behold.

It’s not all fireworks: the serious arco bass at the beginning of ‘Astri Pes,’ a lament that owes its origins to the work of poet Gusan Ashot (1907-1989) arranged by the bassist Ara Yaralyan, takes us into a different dimension that Ikonen then responds to with painstaking solemnity resisting the urge to resort to melodrama a process that sucks you in completely. Drummer Markku Ounaskari is a listening presence at all times injecting just enough heat to make his role plain or stepping in to open up proceedings deftly on the absorbingly complex ‘Verhotango.’

A softly unfolding iridescent version of John Coltrane’s ‘Countdown’ is another significant talking point as well as a number of highly evolved Ikonen compositions, this album is full of surprises and interesting content: even a consciousness expanding Bollywood choice keeps you guessing. A record worth getting to know in all its carefully rendered detail.

And looking ahead to June get the ready reckoner out as the In My Element trio reunite