Live Jazz: Larry Goldings, Peter Bernstein and Bill Stewart at Vitello’s

By Don Heckman

Larry Goldings, Peter Bernstein and Bill Stewart have been working together for more than two decades.  Given the fact that they’re all in their early forties, that’s nearly half a lifetime of musical compatibility – more than the longevity of many marriages.

Larry Goldings

That compatibility was on far-reaching display Saturday night at Vitello’s where — despite the rain, the cold and the wind — a full house audience was on hand to hear the stellar trio’s second night at the cozy Studio City venue.

An organ trio, by its very instrumentation – guitar, B-3 organ and drums – demands an almost intuitive interaction between the players, with the organ bass lines in sync with the drums, and the guitar comping in a similarly passionate embrace with the organ’s backings.  But when it’s happening – as it was with this trio from the very beginning – the results can be impressive.

Peter Bernstein

The highlights were many.  Bernstein stepped to the foreground, showcasing his articulate style in a lovely rendering of John Lewis’s Baroque-oriented “Django.” The irresistible groove Stewart generated on Stevie Wonder’s “Big Brother,” enhanced by Golding’s crisp accents, was a definitive display of the kind of irresistible, body-moving rhythms that can be produced by a world class jazz organ trio.

A richly, melodic take on the classic standard, “How Deep Is the Ocean,” was a reminder of Lester Young’s assertion that jazz players should only play ballads if  they know the words of the song.  I have no proof that either Goldings, Bernstein or Stewart could actually have sung the words, but their interpretation was as much about the message of the lyrics as it was about the arching flow of the melody.

Bill Stewart

Golding’s original line, “The Acrobat,” has been played by the trio, he said, almost since they first got together.  And again, it showed.  Stewart’s spotlight drum solo revealed his rare capacity to create rich, percussive tapestries without – as so many drummers do – taking all the air out of the room.

At the center of all the music, Goldings was both the leader and the partner.  In his adroit hands, the organ was more than the electric groove instrument it too often becomes.  Instead, he employed it as a kind of mini-orchestra, using all its timbral possibilities at the service of the consistently engaging, improvisational flow.

The set came to a close when an overhead leak began to drip water toward the organ keyboard.  But nothing could dilute the fine playing of this long standing trio of gifted musical pals.

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