The Safety Net: Refuge Trio – “Refuge Trio”


Refuge Trio - "Refuge Trio"Comprised of vocalist Theo Bleckmann, percussionist John Hollenbeck, and pianist Gary Versace, Refuge Trio was originally formed as a vehicle to perform at the 2002 Wall-to-Wall Joni Mitchell concert in NYC.  Their named drawn from the Mitchell tune “Refuge of the Road,” the trio continued to collaborate after the festival, and became something much more than the original inspiration.  The 2008 recording Refuge Trio remains a compelling session, an expression of a singular sound quite unlike anything else on the scene.

The music is typified by a minimalism that sometimes manifests as a comforting ambient drone, but sometimes kicks up some stones, a few at a time, just enough to scatter ripples across the surface of the serenity.

Your album personnel: Gary Versace (piano, keyboards, accordion), John Hollenbeck (percussion, vibes, crotales), and Theo Bleckmann (vocals, electronic effects).

No better example of this album in its best light than the dreamy “To What Shall I Compare This Life.”  The song has an ethereal melody that floats on the softest of percussion and harmony.  Versace provides a comforting hum on accordion, which is balanced with the slight murmurs of Hollenbeck on vibes.  Meanwhile, Bleckmann’s phrasing repetitions possess that peculiar and epically vague wisdom of the very best lullabies.

“Pinwheel” switches things up only slightly, with a skittering cadence that develops into harmonic glide, as voices overlap like ocean tides before slipping back into a groove to see the song out.

“Rural Bliss” is a quietly ambling piece, with bright keyboard notes carrying the tune, followed by the accordion interlude of “Edges.”

“Bright Moon” displays the trio’s versatility, as the song begins as gentle ballad, shifts into something ominous and free, then ends on an upbeat note with some chipper work on keys, electronics, and drums, accompanied by Bleckmann’s wordless harmonics.

The trio, then, in successive tracks, performs renditions of Ornette Coleman and Thelonious Monk compositions.  You wouldn’t know it if I hadn’t written it here first.

The first of the pair of covers is a rendition of Coleman’s “Peace” (from The Shape of Jazz to Come).  The trio takes Coleman’s rather straight-forward, but loose blues tune and channel it as ambient minimalism.  Softly phrased notes on keyboards and accordion, angelic vocal harmonies, and restrained drum and cymbal work, like the gurgling of a softly flowing stream, all combine to produce a beautiful tune that only hints at the original.

They take a similar approach of hide-and-seek with the Monk tune “Misterioso,” which is presented as a disassembled bundle of kinetic activity.  Piano notes go sprawling in all directions and with no pattern to its flow.  Meanwhile, the impatient dings of percussion are the polar opposite in their predictability and direction.  Bleckmann cuts a middle ground between the two, with guttural sounds that seem aimed at both his trio mates.  It isn’t until the song’s conclusion that, when Bleckmann voices the song’s melody, that Monk’s original vision pokes its head out.

“Child’s Play” has a folk music disposition, with that particular mix of whimsical expressionism and salt-of-the-earth soulfulness.  Versace’s work on accordion is especially effective in seeing this through.  Meanwhile, Hollenbeck’s percussion work on “Yang Peiyi” is a mesmerizing affair, bringing the album from earth to water.

The catchy melody of “Hymn” is the echo of pop songs never sung, whereas “Happiness” is shaped in ways that pop songs never dare, yet is no less pretty than its predecessor.

The album begins with “Refuge of the Roads,” the sole Joni Mitchell cover on the album.  It is Bleckmann singing the lyrics unaccompanied, and, most appropriately, is the most straight-forward album track.

The album ends, on the other hand, with a rendition of the very fusion-y Alan Holdsworth composition “All Our Yesterdays” (which, also, has a big Star Trek tie-in, which really isn’t worth getting into right now).  The thing of it is, hiding behind all of that awful over-processed syrupy fusion of the 80s were some solid melodies, often quite pretty if you just hummed them to yourself.  Refuge Trio culls the melody from the Holdsworth original, adding some tasteful harmonic development and organic rhythms, and end their album with this little sonic diamond.. a last bit of evidence to the singularity of their approach to music, both their own compositions and that of others.

Released in 2008 on Winter & Winter.

Available at:  eMusic | Amazon CD | Amazon MP3


The Safety Net, a Bird is the Worm series that highlights outstanding older albums that may have flown under the radar when first released.