Smooth jazz was my entry way into jazz proper. While trying to find study music on the radio, I found the smooth jazz station and took a liking to the easy pop approach to the genre. Years later did I realize how small a subset smooth jazz was in the larger scheme of things, but for a new listener, it did the trick. It was certainly easier than trying out Coltraine on my first outing. For their first album, Coexistence, Trio Closer, with Vian on piano, Lee Wonsool on bass and Han Woongwon on drums, play within the smooth jazz structure, and with your expectations.
For the most part, Coexistence is a mid-tempo to ballad piano-jazz record. Songs like the opener, “In Between,” show the trio’s penchant for slower melodies and wide spaces to let the songs breathe. The star of the three is Vian, who features prominently on the record’s eleven tracks. Vian does a great job as the emotional center of the trio, grounding a song that can get hectic, “Love and Respect,” into an easier song to take in, while leaving some complexity intact. Vian brings it all to bear on the ballad, “A Letter From Unknown,” with notes of sadness and loneliness, as well as leading into some of the best solos by Wonsool and Woongwon. Smooth jazz is a great vehicle to start with for Trio Closer, but it’s only the springboard for them.
Expectations are also on the table when it comes to the band’s sound. On “Work #2,” the band works with a quick pace for some really nice solo work, especially a great back and forth between Wonsool and Woongwon. This one-on-one play happens again in “Distorted Desire,” where keys and drums riff off each other in odd ways, like two conversations going side by side at a million miles a minute. The record closes with “A Delicate Balance,” with each going on their own path, but at the same pace. These guys may be smooth, but Trio Closer is far from boring.
Bands tend to focus on one strong point and feature the others when it benefits the song, or just leave the others in the background, a lá John Butler Trio. Trio Closer is the definition of that dynamic, feeling more like Vian trio with Wonsool on bass and Woongwon on drums. Nomenclature nitpicking aside, Trio Closer nails the smooth jazz hinted in the record’s title.
From the beginning, Coexistence is a cool jazz record with lots of piano-filled slow numbers and fast ones to keep you on your toes. While some songs step into experimental territory (“Where We Are” and “Work #2”), Trio Closer hold true to the smooth jazz tradition without going avant-guarde. By sticking to that direction, Trio Closer made a great and accessible album in “Coexistence,” good for listeners new and experienced.