By Dan Emerson
In the creative, improvised music world, it’s often true that familiarity breeds success – as measured in artistic achievement, not necessarily commercial success. That’s certainly true of the longstanding trio of organist Larry Goldings, guitarist Peter Bernstein and drummer Bill Stewart, who played to a receptive audience on Tuesday night, December 13 at the Dakota in Minneapolis.
Making their first Twin Cities appearance in the number of years, Goldings and his collaborators played a typically revelatory set filled with original pieces drawn from their extensive discography, with a few jazz standards thrown in.
Last year, Goldings, Bernstein and Stewart celebrated their 30th year of performing and recording together, making them one of the longest-standing, and most highly regarded, combos in modern jazz. They’ve released about a dozen albums as a unit for a variety of labels, along with numerous side projects.
Goldings began his career as a pianist before adopting the Hammond B-3 as his usual axe (he still plays piano on recordings). One of Goldings’ trademarks is a distinctive, easily recognizable B-3 sound, which often delves into atypical Hammond organ sounds and riffs.
When he was starting out, Goldings said, he patterned his sound after that of the great Jimmy Smith and also Wes Montgomery sidekick Mel Rhyne. He takes a different approach these days.
Goldings’ playing features a wider variety of tones and riffs than many B-3 players, often using unconventional organ textures to convey a sense of mystery, eeriness or quirkiness.
“I now kind of reach for more sounds almost at random and sculpt them until I find something I like on that particular organ. I like to be surprised by a randomly chosen drawbar setting and see what I can do from there. I don’t think I favor the upper register actually, the middle is so warm both for melodies and accompanying and thinking orchestrally.
“I just try to vary the sounds to not bore myself or others, or to help tell the story of the song more dramatically.”
In 2021 the Smoke Sessions label released the trio’s album “Perpetual Pendulum,” a mix of originals contributed by each member, and a few covers. For one track, Goldings refashioned a Gershwin prelude into an original tune.
As a democratic musical unit, all three members contribute original tunes for recording, and “almost none” of their repertoire is the result of collaborating on a song – although the pieces evolve as there are played “live,” Goldings said. “When we get together to record, all of us have thought about original things to bring in. Only once or twice have we gone in the studio for the purpose of improvising and then seeing if we can edit it into a tune.”
Longevity has shaped the trio’s cohesiveness and a shared musical sensibility. “We’re pretty close as individuals, which helps a lot,” Goldings said. “We’ve never had a problem deciding what kind of tunes to play or what kind of records to make. None of us are particularly interested in preserving any specific organ trio tradition; we just happen to be playing these instruments.”
“Peter and I have so many similarities in what tunes we like. We appreciate melody and harmony and we have fun discovering different ways to harmonize songs. We share a real love for how tunes move around so we can both be creative with arrangements. And Peter doesn’t over-play. He is a great listener and thoughtful. “
Goldings also appreciates the fact that drummer Stewart is “endlessly creative and seemingly doesn’t want to repeat himself. He doesn’t fall into ruts and wants things to be pretty spontaneous. He’s also very tasteful and just kind of knows when to go in a certain direction.”
Stewart’s funky and often surprising polyrhythms create rhythmic frameworks that support the always interesting harmonies cooked up by Goldings and Bernstein.
The trio started off with a bouncy version of the old standard “Come Rain or Come Shine,” with Bernstein picking the melody on his six string. Goldings supplied the bass line with his left foot, with a skittering snare and tom rhythm from drummer Stewart. They wound up the piece with a nice extended coda jammed by the threesome.
Following that was “Mr Meagles,” a minor key instrumental with a loping groove, from the group’s 2014 “Ramshackle Serenade” album.
Goldings frequently fiddled with the B-3 organ’s drawbar settings, taking advantage of the instrument’s expansive sonic pallet for some uncommon sounds.
Their rendition of saxophonist Gary Bartz’s composition “Libra” featured a staccato, stop-time beat which segued into a swing section and back again. Goldings played a progression of ascending and descending right-hand chords as the tune motored along, with some staccato picking and string-bending by Bernstein, whose playing always has a great blues feel.
Bernstein was featured on an original composition he recorded on his own 2020 quartet album, “Simple As That.”
With Stewart displaying brush artistry, GBS delved into ballad territory with Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Luiza,” with thoughtful, understated playing to bring out the beauty of the piece. Another ballad was “They Say It’s Wonderful,” a piece recorded back in the early ’60s by the unforgettable duo of Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane.
There were a couple of compositions credited to Stewart, who obviously has a well-honed sense of humor (as most jazz musicians seem to). One was titled “Don’t Ever Call Me Again,” from the trio’s 2018 “Toy Tunes” album. The set also featured Stewart’s sardonic shout-out to a recent, former president, “F.U. Donald.” Appropriately, the piece had a disjointed, slightly chaotic vibe.
The trio closed the show by bopping through a brisk rendition of Thelonious Monk’s “In Walked Bud.”
Dan Emerson is a freelance writer and musician in Minneapolis.