This is the golden age of the saxophone trio. I say that not only because the form is now incredibly popular, replacing both the quartet and quintet as the default sax-led unit, but because bands like Fly and the JD Allen Trio have pushed it to new heights. It used to be that all you needed for a sax trio was a big-toned tenorman and a pick-up rhythm section. Now you need to have three distinct voices that together sing with fearful synergy.
The Honey Ear Trioa new collective of old friends Erik Lawrence, Rene Hart, and Allison Milleris the latest exponent of this trend, fusing classic gusto with the sophisticated interplay of the modern sax trio. Their debut album, Steampunk Serenade, came out last month, and it's a stellar recordtight and freewheeling, percussive and lyrical.
Juxtapositions are the joy of Honey Ear. On the title track, "Steampunk Serenade," drummer Allison Miller kicks things off with a sharp, metronomic beat that Rene Hart augments with a repeating bass riff and electronic distortion. The music is precise and mechanical. Then Erik Lawrence enters on tenor sax, bellowing long and deep. An operatic voice cries out over the clanking of gears and sprockets. If that's not steampunk, I don't know what is.
Many of the new sax trios make a virtue out of restraint, as if correcting years of saxophone excess. The Honey Ear Trio does not. There are quiet tracks, like "Over the Rainbow" and "Eyjafjallajokull (Icelandic Volcano Hymn)," but even these are upfront in their emotional immediacy. Lawrence, Hart, and Miller have all toured with rock musicians and they've learned well the lessons of that genre. Non-jazz fans often complain that the music is too abstract and too esoteric. No one will say that about the Honey Ear Trio. Their sound is bold, brash, and fierce.
Tonight, the Honey Ear Trio celebrates the release of Steampunk Serenade with a concert at Littlefield in Gowanus. Opening will be Ben Perowsky's Moodswing Orchestra and the Portland-based Blue Cranes, an indie rock-jazz hybrid that shares with Honey Ear a predilection for complex rhythms and rock snarls. (Check out their pulsing anthem "Ritchie Bros.") For $15, you're not going to get a much better night of music.