Even as the genre evolves, contemporary classical music groups keep turning to older traditions for inspiration. This does not necessarily result in a corruption of these traditions, but instead further elaboration, pushing the boundaries of what is possible within “traditional” forms. This is especially true for the Warp Trio, with the most obvious example of this being that their “trio” contains four members: pianist Mikael Darmanie, violinist Josh Henderson, cellist Ju Young Lee, and percussionist Rick Martinez. The Warp Trio put their fusion of new and old on full display in Watson Hall at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Two specific pieces where I felt the trio pushing those boundaries were in their own composition, “Tang,” and their arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “Black and Tan.” “Tang” was the Warp Trio’s version of Argentine tango music, infusing the century-old dance style with their own ideas while also incorporating things like fugues and canons along the way. In “Black and Tan,” the group took Ellington’s jazz composition and infused more classical elements, especially in Henderson’s opening solo.

Something else that caught my attention was the group’s control over the audience, creating complete silence in the hall when there was a stop in the music. This grasp is sought after by every performer, but rarely able to be fully achieved. This created multiple breathtaking moments, like Henderson’s aforementioned “Black and Tan” solo or the thin textural moments in the trio’s own “Vibe,” described as their “slow jam” piece. As a result, the more raucous parts of the performance were even more elevated, like the pure funk in their “Spitroast” or Darmanie’s criminally nasty solos that would make the ghosts of the great boogie-woogie pianists smile.

In Lee’s introduction to “21 Groove St.,” a composition based on a theme by their colleague Craig Taborn, he described the piece as an “improv sound world.” I think this is an apt description of most of their performance, even those pieces that may contain no improvisation at all. All four members of the “trio” are classically trained and very accomplished in classical music, but there is a freedom in their music that elevates them above the confines of the “classical” label. From the way they dress, to the music they play, to the way they carry themselves and interact onstage, they create an entirely different experience from many others who describe themselves as “chamber groups.” I needed to look no further than Martinez to recognize this, as he sat on a cajón with miniature bells and cymbals tied to his ankles and feet to make his entire body a percussion instrument. Whether it be their “slow jam” that was actually the most unsettling piece of the entire night, or the easy, serene groove of Kevin Laskey‘s “A Thousand Skies,” it was a truly unique experience. The group may have had to postpone their performance at UNCSA due to the pandemic, but it was well worth the wait.