In 1978, guitarist Brandon Ross approached bassist David Wertman about recording a string trio record with violinist Terry Jenoure. Ross and Jenoure had been performing together in Northampton, Massachusetts, and with Wertman—a Queens native who cut his teeth in the New York City loft scene—they could’ve released something special. But one day before the session, Jenoure dropped out, which forced Ross and Wertman to find someone at the last minute to fill the third slot. Wertman called his friend, drummer Steve Reid, to come up from New York and play the session. He agreed; New Life Trio was born.
Recorded during a one-day session in December and released in 1979, the Trio’s first album, Visions of the Third Eye, is a contemplative project blending American jazz with non-Western musical ideas. Where “Chinese Rock” feels delicate, veering between a sustained cadence and turbulent free jazz, “Egypt Rock” is led by what sounds like a Spanish acoustic guitar; Reed keeps a midtempo pace on the drum kit and Wertman bows the bass in its upper register. Throughout the album, the Trio adheres to the tenets of traditional jazz structures while leaning into the unforeseen twists that come with improvised music. While the band wrote compositions for Third Eye, there’s a sense they were looking for something else, something beyond what was on paper: for Ross, Wertman and Reid, the enlightenment arrived when the melody drifted into the unknown.
Third Eye doesn’t live solely in the clouds, though. Opening track “Empty Streets” is about walking through Northampton as black sky fades to blue—or, as Ross says in the liner notes, nighttime is “galloping off and the day’s chasing it.” In turn, the arrangement has a nomadic spirit; the wordless chants (courtesy of Ross) convey the calm of rising sun. On “Sculpture,” Reid takes the lead; Ross and Wertman’s tenacious string plucks give way to the drummer’s methodical, blues-inspired tempo. New Life Trio was a short-lived project that disbanded shortly after Third Eye’s release. All three members went on to have nice solo careers, which only heightened the intrigue surrounding this hard-to-find LP. Now reissued via Early Future Records, Visions of the Third Eye sheds light on an unlikely jazz group that congealed out of necessity and made a grand impact nonetheless.