Mondays With Morgan: Bassist/Composer Will Lyle of TrioGram (new album ‘TrioGram’ out now)

Mondays With Morgan is a new column in London Jazz News written by Morgan Enos, a music journalist based in Hackensack, New Jersey. Therein, he dives deep into the jazz that moves him – his main focus being the scene in nearby New York City.

This week, Enos spoke with Will Lyle, a bassist, composer, arranger, and bandleader in New York City whose musical collective, TrioGram, released their debut album on 7 April via Circle Theory Records.

Will Lyle. Photo credit: Arina Fujiwara

An honest mistake about TrioGram illuminated a vital truth. 

Shortly after the piano-bass-drum trio’s debut, self-titled album arrived in mailboxes – an intriguingly ambiguous artefact, with nothing but the title and an Escheresque triangle on the cover – their publicist issued a mea culpa via email. 

TrioGram, the rep clarified, is not simply a new leader album by bassist Will Lyle, as previously advertised. Rather, it’s the work of a democratic trio: Lyle, pianist Bijan Taghavi and drummer Kofi Shepsu – all of whom are younger than 30, to boot.

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From an outsider’s perspective, this explanation gives the work new weight, from the stark album art to the music itself. (Lyle’s cheeky Instagram self-description as “CEO” notwithstanding.) Doubly so when you sit down with the bassist, and hear where he’s coming from.

“I’ve noticed that perhaps as important – if not more important – than the drums-bass agreement is the piano-drums agreement,” says Lyle over Zoom from Washington Heights, New York. “The drummer has a huge effect on what the piano player plays, and how they sound. 

“I think Kofi supports Bijan really well,” he glows. “If Bijan is excited about it, I find myself pretty adaptable.”

As Lyle implies, he and Taghavi have been tight for years; Shepsu, he hadn’t played with until the rehearsal for what would become TrioGram. But on this set of Lyle originals (“Esau”, “Ezra”, “Trap”), Taghavi compositions (“Changes”, “Lalyc’s Groove”) and standards (“Street of Dreams”, “How Deep is the Ocean”) it sounds like they’ve always played together. (One tune fits in none of those categories: a rendition of Dido’s 1998 jam “Thank You”.)

When describing the triangular integrity of TrioGram, Lyle muses about inseparable road-dog bands of yore, like Cannonball Adderley’s group and pianist Gene Harris’ Three Sounds. 

“The music was so great, because they were together all the time and they’re friends,” he says. “You can hear the friendship.” He may as well be describing TrioGram – hopefully the first offering of many from this swinging, imaginative, deeply satisfying group.

Read on for an interview with Lyle about the genesis of TrioGram, how poring over religious and cultural traditions influenced his writing, and jazz as commentary on modern culture.

LondonJazz News: Please explain the concept of TrioGram, down to brass tacks.

Will Lyle: It sounds kind of cliché, but we seek to have one foot in the future and one in the past. We aim to play music that is within the jazz tradition, but we also want to modernise jazz, so we have some elements of the group’s repertoire that are non-conventionally jazz songs. Sort of jazz-ified songs. 

There’s an authentic Afro-Cuban song on there. There’s a trap beat we made into a jazz song. There’s a jazz reharmonisation of the song “Thank You” by Dido. We wanted to combine all our musical influences and have sort of an artistic commentary on where the music has been and where the music is going. Also, just to have a great time playing and creating.

LJN: Transmuting non-jazz songs into jazz is no novelty; the concept applies not only to the sprawling map of Black American music, but also the interconnectedness of all musics. Tell me where all these seemingly disparate strands meet at a nexus for you.

WL: I definitely think there’s a connective tissue within the last 200 years of music. Of music around the world, and especially music that’s born out of the legacy of the colonial period and the fusing of African culture – and African conceptions around music, and cultural significance of music – and European sensibilities.

We sought to definitely illustrate that with “Asojano,” which is a tune by Los Hermanos Arango. That’s kind of like our acknowledgement of the past. It’s a fusion band, but at its core, the groove and singing are based on Yoruba music traditions. Those music traditions found their way to New Orleans, and they also found their way to Brazil.

This is all underneath what we have in jazz, what we have in samba, and what we have in all the Cuban styles: son montuno, charanga, boleros. 

There is this connective tissue, and all of that comes from Nigeria. The people who were brought here, and their ancestors – it’s them taking their tradition and adapting it to the new circumstances they found themselves in. So, we definitely seek to acknowledge that.

With the more modern side, the way I look at it is: jazz has always provided commentary on what’s going on. Even though the song “Thank You” is now almost 20 years old – and it’s crazy to think that – [millennials like me] remember it. I remember the original song and the Eminem remake on the radio all the time when I was a kid.

I love jazz. I seek to make as many people as excited about it as possible. But, imagine if you stood in front of an audience and talked to them in Shakespearean English. They’d probably understand maybe 20, 30% of it, maybe. That’s if you’re lucky. Those are really dialled-in people.

But, if you can give something to somebody that they understand first, and use that as a gateway drug – if you will – to bring them into the rest of the music, I think that is very helpful. And trap is probably our most modern idea. [Chuckles] Bijan really didn’t like playing on this song, but I convinced him: “Nah, man, I really want to do this.” 

It’s inspiring: Christian Scott and other artists – Robert Glasper – have been on that artistic concept for a little while, but I sought to do it with a jazz piano trio. I don’t know that many acoustic jazz piano trios that are playing that kind of style.

Honestly, in Washington Heights, it’s so crazy, because I hear the entire spectrum of music every day, just waking up. I’ll hear merengue down the street; I’ll hear bachata; I’ll hear salsa – especially in the summertime. I’ll also hear a car driving by playing trap music. It’s kind of wild how I get this history lesson every day, living in a little apartment in New York.

LJN: How did you, Bijan and Kofi come to work together in the first place?

WL: Bijan and I are from the same area in California – we’re from Orange County – but we didn’t know each other growing up. Bijan started as a classical piano prodigy. We never crossed paths when we were kids in high school; he’s also three or four years younger than me. 

After I graduated from Berklee in Boston, I moved back to LA to get some playing experience. I saw Bijan’s Instagram and reached out to him, like: “Hey, man. I see that you’re really busy. I really like your playing. I hope we can get together and do a session.”

Surprisingly, he agreed, and we got together and became best friends after one time of hanging out. It was an instant connection. His playing was great, but it’s gotten even better, and we both have fed off each other over the years.

Kofi went to MSM [Manhattan School of Music] with Bijan. They were connected for some years, and Kofi studied with the great teachers there. Bijan also used Kofi on his hits [trio gig appearances] in Michigan, because Bijan is a professor [there]. He brought Kofi out to play with [bassist] Rodney Whitaker and stuff.

Kofi and I had never played together before the first rehearsal. We did one rehearsal, and then [made] the record the next day. We didn’t know how it was going to go, but it ended up going well.

LJN: Bijan and Kofi aren’t mere accompanists on a record date; TrioGram is its own entity. As such, you seem serious about where this configuration could go in the future.

WL: Absolutely. Obviously, with the industry nowadays, it’s important to get people to pay attention to your stuff, and that’s why people get the most killing cats on all their records. 

Cannonball Adderley’s band, even Gene Harris and the Three Sounds – lesser-known but amazing groups. Those guys were on the road together every day. Maybe one person in the group was a name, but the rest of the group may have not been as well known. But the music was so great, because they were together all the time and they’re friends; you can hear the friendship.

My last record [2021’s L.A. Source Codes] had more older players on it, so I wanted to go in another direction this time.

LJN: How do you navigate such a saturated, often cutthroat jazz marketing landscape, where everyone’s vying to be noticed?

WL: I think you have to make something that you like [first and foremost]. You have to be marketable – I think you should be somewhat personable – and you have to sell a story: “Where are you from?” “Who hired you?” and all that. But at the end of the day, it’s going to reach somebody.

When I make an Instagram ad and blast it all around the world, I’m kind of amazed at who decides to follow, and who decides to write something, because a lot of times, it’s people I would never think would enjoy our music. 

When we were playing in Mexico, we played our music to audiences who didn’t know us at all – who had never seen us, with no connection to us whatsoever, but they enjoyed a lot of it. I think the music speaks for itself, but at the same time, you have to play the game. You have to ingratiate yourself. It’s definitely a balance.

LJN: Tell me about the originals on the album, from your “Esau,” “Ezra” and Trap” to Bijan’s “Changes” and “Lalyc’s Groove.”

WL: [As far as] “Esau,” there was a point where I was studying a lot of religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism. 

“Esau” is about the story of Jacob and Esau: one of the first stories in the Bible. It’s a mystifying, intriguing name. Originally, the A sections were in 5/4, and it was kind of a groove, and Bijan was like, “I don’t want to play over this! Rewrite the A sections!” We just tell each other [these kinds of things] openly: “This is wack!”

Then, I came up with something when I was walking around one day. It was sort of a nod to [Wayne Shorter’s] “Black Nile” and [McCoy Tyner’s] “Inner Glimpse.” That was the beginning of the A, then the second part song modulates and becomes redefined by the harmony.

The very last part of the song with the drum hits is actually from another tune I wrote called “Hinge Date,” about bad dates. I didn’t end up doing anything with the song; I just [added that part] at the end.

For “Ezra”, I was inspired by Geri Allen in a big way. Geri is a huge hero of mine; I really love her music. My teacher, Ralph Peterson – rest in peace – his first record, [1989’s] Triangular, was with Geri. 

That’s a swinging record, but Geri also has this introspective, more esoteric side. She made a couple of records – one with Paul Motian and Charlie Haden, another with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette – and I wanted to write something to capture that, with some nice unrelated minor chords, a straight-eighth groove.

“Lalyc’s Groove”, Bijan’s tune, is on the more Tommy Flanagan side of things. That’s a lockdown baby. That started as a duo piece, and we made it a trio.

The “Trap” song is a little beat I came up with; I wanted to write an almost comically minimalist sort of thing. Sort of a troll on the whole [Mimics trap beat] repetition, but there’s something about repetition that is irresistible. We played with other drummers besides Kofi for the tour, and Kofi really nailed that trap groove.

“Changes” is Bijan’s favorite song on the record. That’s kind of a waltz. He’s a student of Fred Hersch, and I definitely think there’s a big Fred influence there. I think that’s probably the best playing on the album.

LJN: As per not only these originals, but covers – the standards “Street of Dreams” and “How Deep is the Ocean” among them – how did you trawl through the ocean of outside material at your disposal to curate the remainder of this album?

WL: I definitely wanted to have a classic ballad on there. It felt like we had all this material on there that’s unconventional.

Let’s talk about “Street of Dreams.” Two of my favourite versions of “Street of Dreams” are on Frank Sinatra’s Sinatra at the Sands and Ray Brown Trio’s Live from New York to Tokyo. In California, 75% of your work as a straight-ahead acoustic bass player is going to come from playing a Sinatra gig, 

And I love that song; it has such beautiful lyrics, and it’s a short form, and nobody plays it, you know? It’s kind of a nod to my past, playing all those gigs, because that’s an important part of the style and where I’m from.

“How Deep is the Ocean”: I wanted to have something where it’s still a standard, but we played it in a style where we tried to obscure everything. It ends up being pretty swinging, but in the first couple of parts, we tried to stretch it and play what we wouldn’t always play.

There are a couple of different approaches to making a jazz record now. One is: I’m going to write all this stuff with these rehearsed hits in it; the piano lick is following the bass in measure 27, and there’s a bar of five, and there’s a bar of seven.

That can be impressive, because a lot of people – especially music students – respond to that. I’m not one of those people who’s like, “That’s not swinging”; it has its own place in the genre. 

But there’s also the approach of: Let’s just throw down on something we all know. We don’t have to read it; it’s going to be all listening. That will lend itself to a different sort of outcome. They’re both cool, but we wanted to have some of that, for sure.

LJN: Give me your MVP moments by Bijan and Kofi on the album.

Lyle: Definitely Bijan’s solo on “Changes.” Fantastic. You can’t miss it. Bijan’s orchestration on “Asojano,” I think is great: only he could have come up with that. 

It’s a highly pentatonic vocal melody. It’s a Yoruba, Afro-Cuban chant, and then he put all this orchestration behind it that makes it a piano-trio-friendly tune, which is not easy. That’s a completely separate skill, and separate from even improvising.

Kofi played a great groove on that tune as well; he played some authentic rhythm there. Also, Kofi’s solo on “Esau.” Yeah, they’re killing it. I’m proud of them.

LINK: TrioGram is on Bandcamp

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