The company may be easy, but the ideas are complex and the playing especially cerebral on this luminous summit of three of the smartest players on the Twin Cities jazz scene. Drummer Jay Epstein, pianist Bill Carrothers (who now lives on Michigan's U.P.), and bassist Anthony Cox all sport extensive résumés that include innumerable sessions with international, national, and local jazz heavy-hitters. That includes one another, but they haven't recorded as a trio since the widely acclaimed neo-bop nugget Long Ago a dozen years ago.
Easy Company is an admirable follow-up: a sparkling collection of uncommon standards, surprising covers (Cream's "White Room," the Darth Vader theme from Star Wars), a handful of Epstein originals, and a concluding suite that juxtaposes wistfulness with the heart of darkness.
Distinguishing this trio in particular is the remarkable sense of lyricism each brings to the music, with touches so supple that melodies seem to glide off their instruments even while they probe the underlying depths of each piece with an endless array of expressive nuances: Epstein's shimmering cymbal work and clusters of rolling rhythms; Cox's fortuitous feints, alluring tone, and bold bowing; Carrothers's ceaselessly inventive escapades on the ivories. None is ever heavy-handed. Rather, they create sly conspiracies, like the version of John Williams's "Imperial March" that kicks things off. It's lush, almost romantic in spots, the shadowy portent of Vader conveyed by the intricate weave of instruments, culminating in Epstein's subtly frenetic rumble edging out front while Carrothers and Cox lurk nearby.
They follow with a dark, exotic version of Carla Bley's "Ida Lupino," Epstein again splashing the cymbals as if spinning a web of whispers, Cox scampering across with plump commentary while Carrothers ruminates on the melody. On Dean Magraw's spiky "N.R. Chi," Carrothers and Epstein trade jagged bits that flirt with free funk while Cox's pointillist runs settle into spooky, atmospheric bowing under Carrother's stalking piano.
The concluding "Forgotten Soldiers Suite" begins with a bright, nostalgic run through the standard "Midnight, the Stars & You," although Carrothers's fractured chords midway through suggest looming trouble. Sure enough, things get dramatically darker on Epstein's "Sgt. Rock," an unsettling viper's nest of scurrying piano and bass figures, while Fred Coots's melancholy ballad "For All We Know" is nearly as menacing thanks to its deliberate pace and Epstein's hectoring cymbals. The album ends with Epstein's haunting reflection on Art Spiegelman's Holocaust classic Maus, his drums grumbling like distant thunder against Cox's cello-like bowing while Carrother's piano quietly etches a sad, diffident melody.
Epstein, Carrothers, and Cox will celebrate the CD's release Friday and Saturday, June 12 and 13, at the Artists' Quarter; 651.292.1359.