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Last night, the final concert in the Winter series for Jazz at the Athenaeum was an excellent reminder of the power of master improvisers to create, in the moment, something that will reward attentive listeners for years to come.

Trio M is just that sort of experience. It's a piano trio, but a collaborative group. Bassist Mark Dresser characterized it as having "no hierarchy," meaning, that it's a truly democratic effort. Pianist Myra Melford has become an integral contributor to the improvised music scene since she began working with members of the AACM collective in her native Chicago in the 1980s. She is a member of several groundbreaking ensembles, and has recorded with many of the essential leaders of the free jazz scene, from Art Ensemble founder Joseph Jarman to trumpeter Cuong Vu.

NYC based Matt Wilson was voted #1 Rising Star Drummer in the DownBeat Critic's poll for five consecutive years, but his ultimate accolade, in my book, was that tenor saxophone legend Dewey Redman drafted him to become a member of his quartet. Dewey knew something about drummers--having collaborated with giants like Ed Blackwell and Paul Motian. He is constantly inventive, has huge ears, and can swing his ass off, a feat he repeated often last night.

San Diego jazz fans are blessed by the presence of Dresser. He was one of the world's most accomplished contrabass innovators 30 years ago, and he somehow continues to set new standards in the virtuoso bass lexicon. Most global jazz aficionados know him for his stellar 10 year experience in the iconic Anthony Braxton Quartet, but Dresser has been awfully busy since then--he continues to tour the world, and, in fact, will perform a solo concert on Feb. 4 at the University of Anchorage, Alaska, after a concert with Trio M on Feb. 3, and before they hit Yoshi's in San Francisco on Feb. 6.

The intimate, and acoustically pristine Athenaeum Library, (only Dresser used amplification), was packed with fans primed for the event. The trio began with Wilson's "Al," an homage to the free jazz pioneer Albert Ayler. Wilson led off shaking a handful of bells in his left hand while he used his right to strike a variety of cymbals. Dresser pulsed huge throbbing tones over the rattling discourse of the drums and sparse ruminations of Melford. Drums and piano laid out while Dresser posited a singing legato story that had him "worrying" the hell out of certain tones, before Melford textured a series of melodic asides--then locked in with the bassist for some animated exchanges. Wilson continued to build storm clouds of constant percussive action, in the manner of a Sunny Murray, which drew the pianist into some intense key pounding, while Dresser slapped his bass and stomped his feet.

Melford's original, "The Guest House," the title track of their brand new CD, jumped right in to an ecstatic, stop-and-start, churning rhythm that shifted dramatically into a pedal-tone, then down to a whisper. Dresser squeezed notes with a grainy aesthetic and used glissandi in a short feature before Wilson entered with a hi-hat exposition that sounded like a merger of "Papa" Joe Jones and Jack DeJohnette. When Melford pumped up the drama with severe clusters, Wilson responded with a Gatling gun of rim shots from all around his kit.

As expertly as this trio creates controlled mayhem, they were equally effective on ballads--which they treated with resolute devotion, such as Wilson's "Hope For The Cause," a tone-poem dedicated to the people who's lives have been touched by cancer. Illuminated by the swirling, sensitive brushstrokes of the composer, Dresser and Melford responded with lyrical touches that rivaled the ballad artistry of the Keith Jarrett or Bill Evans trios.

Dresser opened with a solo turn filled with extended techniques and an incredible flow, leading in to his celebratory, Zimbabwean inspired, "Ekoneni." Wilson grabbed this tune by the horns, powering into a new dimension by adding touches of Caribbean influenced beats to the potent rhythmic gumbo established by bass and piano.

There was the episodic, and cinematic arc of Dresser's "Tele Mojo," which opened with Melford's prepared-piano conjuring strange, spaceship drones, and African bailophone repetitions before Wilson conducted an ever shifting ride cymbal exploration through multiple time signatures, spurring Melford to an ecstatic solo followed by Dresser's alternately reassuring and violently aggressive series of two-handed slapping, jarring harmonics, and percussive effects.

On this night, everyone became the drummer, at some point.

Melford's "The Promised Land," sported a herky-jerky funk groove, punctuated by offset periods of silence, which Wilson shattered with some steroidal snare drum assaults.

The penultimate tune was the showstopper for me. "Even The Birds Have Homes," by Melford, was a poignant and creatively astonishing three way exploration of moods that confounded the expectations associated with piano, bass and drums. Wilson played the entire tune by striking several small, tuned cymbals for bell-like effects. Dresser used his bow to create chilling, and eerie textures before a written arco melody tied all of those strands together while Melford's tinkling ivories layered reverberant ornaments that hung in the air.

The concert concluded with Wilson's goofy etude to the '60's comic actor, "Don Knotts." There was a definite quirky thread woven through the tune that suggested Knotts might have been a big fan of Ornette Coleman--or vice versa. This one cooked like no one's business, and it was a joy to hear Dresser's furious walking bass while Melford offered snippets of nursery rhymes and bits of the blues. Wilson let loose with an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink solo that sounded like the work of an arsonist at Gasoline Alley.

Dan Atkinson, the Jazz Program Coordinator for the Athenaeum concert series, deserves considerable recognition for securing the very first performance of Trio M six years ago--and having the foresight to facilitate their triumphant return .

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