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About Honey Ear Trio and Steampunk Serenade
As evidenced in headlines throughout the spring, the effects of the April 2010 eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjallajkull volcano were mostly catastrophic: air travel disrupted, travelers stranded, global commerce stalled. But the repercussions can also be heard, with far more positive results, in the deeply intuitive interactions of the Honey Ear Trio's debut CD, Steampunk Serenade.
When that infamous ash cloud resulted in the cancellation of a planned six-week European tour for drummer Allison Miller, she seized the initiative and called Honey Ear Trio mates Erik Lawrence (saxophones) and Rene Hart (bass and electronics). We knew we wanted to make a cooperative trio CD," Lawrence says, but with our busy schedules we only had single days in various months, which would have been disconnected and disjointed. All of a sudden we had a month straight where we could rehearse two or three times a week and really try to add content and concepts to the empathy that we already shared."
That empathy, so evident in the way the trio plays effortlessly with time and structure throughout the CD's thirteen tracks, may have been galvanized in that intensive rehearsal period, but it was built on a foundation laid over several years of interaction. Hart and Miller began performing together in the mid-1990s; Lawrence began working with Hart, who is married to Lawrence's sister, shortly thereafter. The three came together in 2005 and have since worked as a unit with trumpeter Steven Bernstein (in the quartet Hipmotism), keyboardist John Medeski, and poet Robert Pinsky.
While the source of the kind of elusive chemistry shared by Hart, Lawrence and Miller is nearly impossible to pinpoint, one trait that all three share is an interest in a vast array of musical styles beyond the borders of jazz.
Miller, recently named a Rising Star Drummer" in Downbeat's Critics Poll and a member of Modern Drummer's 2011 Pro Panel, has toured not only with organ master Dr. Lonnie Smith and saxophonist Marty Ehrlich but with singer/songwriters Ani DiFranco, Natalie Merchant and Brandi Carlile.
Lawrence counts jazz greats Chico Hamilton and Sonny Sharrock among his mentors, but has also worked with ex-Jimi Hendrix drummer Buddy Miles and New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint and tours extensively with The Band's Levon Helm. He has performed with Bob Dylan, David Bromberg, Aaron Neville, and Medeski Martin & Wood, and teaches at Williams College, Dartmouth College and Montclair State Universityfollowing in the educational footsteps of his father, Arnie Lawrence, founder of New York's New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music.
Hart's resume similarly strays from straight-ahead jazz to experimental music to pop and neo-soul, with artists like saxophonists Branford Marsalis and Don Braden, trombonist Julian Priester, and pianist Anat Fort on the one hand, and James Hunter and Bilal on the other. He has appeared on the stages of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Late Night with Conan O'Brian, and on numerous film soundtrack recordings.
We all come from the jazz tradition," Miller explains, but we've all veered away from that tradition over the years. So we communicate in such a similar way that we're able to trust each other and explore all the different variations of what you can do with form and time and feel."
The range of territory the trio can cover is exemplified immediately on Steampunk Serenade's first two tracks. Opener 'Matter of Time' is an elastic ballad whose mood and character shifts constantly; Miller's 'Olney 60/30,' written in honor of landmark birthdays for her and her mother, is rollicking and aggressive, alternately chaotic and fiercely focused.
'Olney 60/30' also marks the first appearance of Hart's electronics, which in this case lends his upright bass a menacing electric snarl. Throughout Steampunk Serenade, Hart employs electronic elements in subtle ways that complement but never overwhelm the trio's mastery of their more traditional instruments. The danger is making it sound like a ten-year-old girl's room," Hart laughs. Unicorn posters on the walls and sparkles everywhereI try to err on the side of wanting more rather than having too much."
One of the most innovative uses can be found on the trio's surprising rendition of 'Over the Rainbow,' in which Hart's playing of the melody in reverse is echoed backwards, lending the familiar melody a bizarre otherworldliness. We exploded the image of this song," Lawrence says, taking it out of Kansas and into the cosmos."
The same could be said for the trio's fresh take on the well-worn concept of the saxophone trio. Like opening a door from a black-and-white life into a new Technicolor world, the Honey Ear Trio transforms a familiar setting into something vibrant, startling, and distinctly their own.