Harnessing the Power of Three

It’s commonplace to say that “three’s a charm”, as we’ve all experienced the baffling beauty of things that take place in threes.

Call it mathematical, cultural, spiritual, mythological, geometrical, architectural or cerebral, but our existence can be delineated in threes. We live in the past, present and future; everything has a beginning, middle and end; our Earth is the third rock from the sun; and we express our souls in body, mind and spirit. Even Freud’s theory — right or wrong — was based on the id, ego and superego. We have the Holy Trinity of Christianity, the Hindu Trimurti, and the three jewels of Buddhism; the Hebrew letter for three stands for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; and in Islam, the ablution before prayer and rituals during prayer are frequently in threes. In Chinese culture, the Great Triad signifies Earth, human and heaven; and the Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras based his entire theory of perfect harmony on the triangle. Which brings me to jazz trios.

From a purely mathematical perspective, in a three-musician ensemble, there are only three relationships that need to be maintained (see diagrams). A and B need to understand how to play together, as do A and C, and B and C. But if a fourth player is added there are now three additional relationships to consider as A, B and C need to integrate D into their playing. Adding more musicians increases the complexity exponentially.

Just as our brains quickly grasp threes at an early age — three blind mice and three little pigs, featured in books made up of primary colors of red, yellow and blue — there’s a neuroscientific reason why artists enjoy making trio music as much as people enjoy listening. From a logistical perspective, in this smaller ensemble, each musician has more space for musical possibilities, choices, expression and responsibility. On one hand, there is a limitation in timbre and on the other, each instrument can explore more sonic texture and a variety of sounds and phrases alternating with the other two musicians taking an ever-present supportive role.

Without getting too neurological, different parts of the brain are recruited to process music. It’s also known that there is a relationship between music and early brain development, and that music can prove effective therapy for cognitive decline in older age. At any age, our brains are “wired” to respond to stories, and a great trio creates a musical conversation that tells a story that our brain can more easily understand.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that of all the different formats of jazz, people respond most favorably to trio music. It’s likely that the communication and structure are complex enough to hold listeners’ attention yet simple enough to take it all in.

I hope you enjoy our issue dedicated to jazz trios and check out some of the great trios of yesterday and today.

Testing 123 …

Feature photo of the Oscar Peterson Trio by ©Gilles Petard/Redfern/Getty Images

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