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While it can often seem like the piano-trio format is all wrung-out, very occasionally a recording drops that introduces new dimensions. Mara Rosenbloom’s Respiration does not reinvent the configuration so much as unsettle it.
For starters, the Wisconsin-raised, New York-based Rosenbloom shows a resolute fondness for her instrument’s lower and middle registers, and no interest whatsoever in the fast, graceful lines and sparkling arpeggios that have been coins of the realm for trio-centric pianists through the decades.
Rosenbloom works the keys hard, repeating and developing knotty note clusters and clamorous chords, her right hand occasionally venturing up an octave or two for a quick, rugged foray. It’s improvising that evolves from the tune’s melody, unconcerned with playing over chord changes.
Rosenbloom’s long-time bandmates — bassist Sean Conly and drummer Chad Taylor — are completely in synch with her idiosyncratic concept. They’re partners in improvisation, not sidemen, intuitively reacting to the pianist’s relentless probing while occasionally taking the wheel.
The album’s rough beauty might take a few listens to insinuate itself. “The Choo,” an uptempo original, provides an apt example. The song’s innate melodic sweetness is at first disguised by Rosenbloom’s roughhouse attack, but soon enough reveals itself as something you could hear Laura Nyro singing. “The Ballad for Carolyn Trousers (Carol, in trousers)” begins with simple, forceful chords and then evolves into a stately, gospel-flavored tune. And the trio issues a frisky surprise with “Ramblin’ on Her Mind (With Gratitude to Lightnin’ Hopkins),” a riffy blues driven by a choppy New Orleans groove.
The album’s most ambitious piece, “Caravan/Connie’s Groove,” blends a bold deconstruction of the Duke Ellington-Juan Tizol classic with an adapted version of Connie Crothers’ “Ontology” over the course of nearly 10 minutes. Rosenbloom begins with rolling-thunder chords, then makes a series of hints at “Caravan.” When the pianist first states the tune outright, she strikes the keys so hard it’s as if were mad at them. From there, the trio almost imperceptibly blends in elements of Crothers’ composition and explores a series of motifs: from near-stillness to raucous pounding to short, discordant lines; from free rhythm to a throbbing, straight-four groove. This medley of sorts is thoroughly personal and unique — much like the rest of Respiration.