“TRI-FI is a winner!”
- Ed Thigpen
Back-up combos associated with vocalists have a long tradition of “moonlighting” with a few albums of their own, and that’s the case with a trio that dubs itself Tri-Fi. By day, these guys — Matthew Fries, piano; Phil Palombi, bass; and Keith Hall, drums — are the rhythm section behind rock/pop singer-turned-jazz vocalist Curtis Stigers. By night, they fund genuinely terrific instrumental albums via Kickstarter campaigns; during a quick 20 days in the summer of 2011, they raised the scratch needed to produce A Tri-Fi Christmas (Tri-Fi TR309).
And, in the process, they delivered what is guaranteed to be one of my all-time favorite piano trio holiday albums.
The reasons are varied, starting with the fact that these guys are tight. The combo passages are arranged inventively, with a nod toward various keyboard masters from Errol Garner to Marcus Roberts; the solos interweave beautifully, with the melody lines sliding gracefully between Fries and Palombi. Hall, as well, is much more inventive than most drummers; you’ll love the way he turns “Joy to the World” into a droll, New Orleans-style marching band strut.
The album kicks up with a peppy 4/4 rendition of “Frosty the Snowman,” which features lively bass work and grants solos to each performer. Fries cleverly deconstructs the melody line during an intriguing cover of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” and Palombi uncorks a marvelous walking bass during a droll rendition of “Let It Snow,” performed against the percussive line from “Killer Joe.”
The guys can be slow and stately as desired, as with their somber, minimalist handling of “In the Bleak Midwinter,” and an equally leisurely approach to “O Holy Night.” Their cover of “Go Tell It on the Mountain” begins with similar tenderness, but then builds to a rousing, revival-hall finish.
My favorite track by far, though, is the fiendishly clever arrangement of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” which opens with a fascinating time signature — alternating 3/4 and 5/4, if I’m not mistaken — and then roars into a fast 4/4.
The trio concludes with a sweet, gentle version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which features Palombi’s bowed bass on the melody line: a lyrical finish to a truly excellent album.