Houston To The Core

With a performance at Cactus Music on Sunday, Houston-based ensemble The Core Trio plants a flag for experimental jazz.

By Justin Mitchell August 15, 2014

The Core Trio
Aug 17 at 2
Cactus Music
2110 Portsmouth St.

Houston might not have a reputation as a hotbed of experimental or “free” jazz, but there are musicians on the scene here that can hold their own among the best of the best in New York City, where the genre has flourished for decades. The Core Trio, a local jazz outfit consisting of Thomas Helton on bass, Seth Paynter on saxophone, and Joe Hertenstein on drums, makes this clear on their recent self-titled album with New York–based pianist Matthew Shipp, who has been at the forefront of the avant-garde jazz world since the early 1990s. The album’s sole track is an untitled, 42-minute improvisation—what Helton, the trio’s leader, prefers to call an “instant composition.”

This approach is common among experimental jazz ensembles and it often produces little more than a studied cacophony. But the members of The Core Trio and Shipp are surprisingly sensitive to one another’s individual gestures. Rather than simply soloing mindlessly on top of each other, the players, particularly Shipp and Paynter, take turns initiating themes and then work collectively to build extended pieces around them in the moment. Shipp, known for his distinctive blend of melodicism and crashing cluster chords, sounds really inspired on this record, especially as he leads the group through a snappy coda that betrays his affection for the somewhat more traditional work of pianists like Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell. Paynter is full of ideas and tends to steer the group toward more dissonant—yet no less fruitful—territory. Meanwhile Hertenstein and Helton provide expert support throughout, carefully modulating their propulsiveness in accordance with Shipp and Paynter’s wanderings. In the end it all adds up to that rare thing: a free jazz record shot through with chemistry and coherence.

And it’s all the more impressive when one takes into account how this particular record got made. Although Helton, a north Houston native who studied jazz at San Jacinto College under the tutelage of bop pianist Shelly Berg and saxophonist Larry Slezak, started The Core Trio in 2004, it wasn’t until last year that he felt the group had truly found its voice. This finally gave him the confidence to contact Shipp through their mutual friend Robert Boston, an experimental pianist featured on the trio’s previous record, to see if the jazz giant would be interested in collaborating on a project. “I sent him an e-mail and he was all about it,” Helton told me in a recent phone interview. “He was like, ‘Yeah, I really like the way your group sounds on the first record, and I’d be honored.’” The new album was recorded in New York City on the same day the trio met Shipp for the first time. “We met that afternoon and just went into the studio,” Helton said. “We had some e-mails and some phone calls, but ultimately we met that day. [Shipp] had said, ‘Do you have any kind of structure or anything?’ And I was like, ‘Nope. Let’s just see what happens,’” he recalled. “And that’s what happened.”

Helton knows these endeavors are risky. “I don’t seek out a lot of improviser’s records or CDs,” he admitted. “And it’s just mostly because whenever I listen to it, it just sounds like some guys that met in the studio and made some sounds and left. They may be really good at what they do, but I’m never really moved by what they’ve accomplished that day.” While his own trio can definitely sound forbidding at times, their desire to connect with one another and a broader audience still manages to come across loud and clear. If you listen carefully enough you might just hear traces of their individual interests in blues, doom metal, gangster rap, and country. “We’re educated in music, not just this particular genre,” Hilton said. “And I think we bring in all the possibilities of music.” 

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