Victor Noriega & Gust Burns – 2 Trios Project

Originally published in Earshot Jazz March 2013

Pianists Victor Noriega and Gust Burns first crossed paths at the Port Townsend Jazz Camp in 1996 when they were both 17 years old. Now, 17 years later, they will celebrate the release of their joint recording Two Trios at the Cellar in Vancouver, BC on Sunday, March 3 and the Chapel Performance Space in Seattle on Tuesday, March 6.

The idea behind Two Trios comes from the interplay between two different piano trios with the same bassist and percussionist. In 2010, Noriega and Burns selected bassist Jeff Johnson and percussionist Greg Campbell to join them in back-to-back sets at Gallery 1412 (formerly Polestar). After two successful shows at Gallery 1412, Noriega submitted a recording to the 2011 Jack Straw Artist Support Program. The award was used to create this recording.

Rather than play complete sets with each pianist, Noriega and Burns swapped the piano seat during the recording session each time they had played two pieces. This rotation between observing and participating infused a stronger than normal influence between the pianists and offered a rare glimpse of how changing a single piece in a trio can impact the overall sound. Noriega’s approach reveals radiant clarity, lyricism and wit while Burns explores gesture, density and momentum. Johnson and Campbell deftly accommodate the change in direction and energy. Spoiler alert: While the musicians intimately influence each other and perform with sensitivity to the overall sound on Two Trios, a unison groove seldom emerges from the musical interplay.

Noriega and Burns talked about the project at Jack Straw on February 13 for a Composer Spotlight sponsored by Washington Composers Forum. “We were truly in the moment,” Noriega said. “We had to draw on what was happening.” Burns said, “It’s easy to play poorly without rehearsal. But this turned out well.” Noriega felt liberated by the approach. “There was no preparation so there was nothing to mess up.” Ten tracks of the sixteen recorded are included on the CD. All are first takes.

Noriega manipulates fragments of standard songs in new ways. For example, the track “Penthouse” riffs and wrestles with the rhythm and harmony from “Pent Up House” and “Glues” morphs a slow blues in “G.” Burns’ tracks are labeled as numbered improvisations with no words in their titles to hint at references beyond the music. While he may quote a standard like “Oleo,” Burns’ musical path usually searches for sounds he has never heard before.

Johnson can be heard playing in a similar manner to this recording on Furious Rubato with Hal Galper and John Bishop. Johnson revels in the seriously spontaneous. His joy captured on Two Trios is infectious.

Campbell sounds comfortable creating without a map as well. In a 2004 interview for All About Jazz, Campbell confesses his yen for “things that were a little more intense and things that were kind of searching.” He enjoys exploring with a variety of artists. “I’m not an intense planner and I encounter things or they encounter me. It’s not like I’m in some intensive way really searching for that one thing that I am looking for. I like responding to whatever happens at the moment.”

Engineer Doug Haire captured warm, balanced signals from all the instruments, particularly Johnson’s acoustic bass and Campbell’s bells, gongs and cymbals. Chad McCullough designed the packaging. As the era of physical music product wanes, the crepuscular CD still makes a nice calling card. A small run of 100 copies were pressed at Cravedog in Portland. They will be available at the release concerts or you can download a file at

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