Try pronouncing it with the hoity-toity inflections of a monocled upper-crust diner party guest, or the “dese and dose” Brooklyn patois of a 1940s comedian: Are You Sure You Three Guys Know What You’re Doing? is the question that inevitably greeted Moe, Larry and Curly/Shemp when the Stooges showed up in the garb of plumbers or house painters or even [shudder] medical doctors.
In the case of this sparkling new album, the inquiry is aimed at a piano trio, two-thirds of which at least can answer assuredly in the affirmative: Mike Jones is an accomplished and acclaimed straightahead pianist who studied at Berklee and plays with the fleet, soulful virtuosity of heroes like Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum; Jeff Hamilton, meanwhile, is one of the most revered drummers on the modern mainstream jazz scene, co-founder of the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and collaborator with everyone from Monty Alexander to Diana Krall, Ray Brown to Michael Bublé.
The head-scratcher comes when we look at the bass chair, held by someone who in another context could also answer with a resounding “yes” – Penn Jillette, along with his partner Teller, is perhaps the most famous, respected and irreverent magician of his generation. Penn & Teller have headlined a successful Las Vegas show full of mind-blowing illusions for more than 30 years, co-host the CW TV series Fool Us, and tour the world pulling the wool over eager audiences’ eyes. So what’s he doing walking the bass with two veteran jazz musicians?
That question was partly answered by The Show Before the Show, the duo album that Jones and Jillette released in 2018. When Jones was invited to become musical director for Penn & Teller in 2002, the gig came with one catch: his opening set would be a duo with Penn, who’d recently challenged himself to pick up the upright bass at the age of 48. In an interview at the time Jillette explained, “I felt compelled to learn something I couldn’t be the best at.”
But that album reflected an act honed over 21 years of six-nights-a-week playing, even if Penn’s practice was largely limited to his time on stage with Jones. When Hamilton dropped by to see the Penn & Teller show and suggested to Jones that the three of them record together, the fast-talking illusionist suddenly came down with an uncharacteristic case of the jitters.
“Penn freaked out,” Jones recalls. “He was as nervous as I’ve ever seen him. He was a basket case and kept repeating, ‘This is absurd. I’m out of my league.’ But I reassured him and it was a fun session that turned out great.”
Penn’s panic, not to mention the presumed second thoughts of his all-star partners, are hilariously depicted on the album cover, once again contributed by The Simpsons animator David Silverman. But ultimately, Are You Sure You Three Guys Know What You’re Doing? – out August 18, 2023 via Capri Records – reveals that Jillette was exaggerating. Teamed with unparalleled rhythm section partners, he puts in a robust performance with a rock-solid sense of time and a hint of the quick wit that he brings to his stage act. He even takes over the melody of “The Girl From Ipanema,” gracefully essaying the familiar Jobim melody.
Jones, naturally, takes on this collection of standards with the vigor and agility that have graced his more than a dozen albums as a leader, which include collaborations with Hamilton, bassists Kelly Sill, Mike Gurrola, Alex Frank and Katie Thiroux, drummers Matt Witek and Tim Davis; and guitarist Graham Dechter. He opens “’S Wonderful” with a sharp-edged percussiveness and dances playfully around Jillette’s trotting bassline; Sonny Rollins’ “Doxy” is taken at a loping swing, while “On Green Dolphin Street” evidences the wistful tenderness of his ballad playing – something that he doesn’t get to show off in an act where his job is hyping up a crowd to see card tricks and miraculous escapes.
As for Hamilton, Jones says it best: “Jeff is my favorite drummer alive,” he enthuses. “He plays the style that I grew up listening to – that idea of swing, that digging in hard. It’s straight out of the Ray Brown Trio or the Oscar Peterson bag.” Just take in his joyous brushwork on “Gone With the Wind,” or his lighter-than-air volleying throughout “Perdido.” The fun that all three are having is obvious throughout the album, but nowhere more than on Jones’ impromptu original “Blues for Burns,” a dedication to Capri head honcho Tom Burns.
There’s a novelty in witnessing someone as famous as Penn Jillette suddenly outside of his comfort zone, but that soon wears off as he ably anchors each of these tunes. What remains is the celebratory flair and the dauntless swing of a trio led by a pianist who has enjoyed a unique position for 21 years – after a new stage redesign he’ll even have his name up in lights – that provides him a spotlight several nights a week. “I get to try out all kinds of new ideas and stretch out all the time,” he says. “ And I know that Penn is going to be underneath me, playing solidly.”