Marilyn Crispell Trio
Marilyn Crispell piano
Mark Helias double-bass
Paul Motian drums
Recorded February 2003 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James Farber
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Although the distinction of Marilyn Crispell’s free-flowing approach to the keyboard has been evident at least since her 1983 solo album Rhythms Hung in Undrawn Sky, her sporadic ECM tenure has shown an artist coming into her own. For Storyteller, she is joined by bassist Mark Helias (filling the formidable shoes of Gary Peacock) and drummer Paul Motian. One hesitates to call them “bandmates,” for the symbiosis between the three is such that parsing them into any hierarchy of leader and followers would upset the balance of their artistry. Motian and Helias are indeed more than a rhythm section: rather, they section rhythm into its base components, fragmenting and rebuilding in real time, like Crispell herself, to suit the needs of the tune at hand.
On the subject of tunes, the set list affords fair consideration to each musician’s pen, beginning and ending with Crispell’s contributions, and through them loosely framing the trio’s open approach. In the first moments of “Wild Rose,” as Motian’s rasp breezes through Crispell’s transcendence, and they in tandem through Helias’s pockets of air, there is a sense that what we are hearing is available only to the ears. This is, in certain terms, invisible music. Dynamics are constantly flipping and shifting, so that in “Alone” Crispell billows like a curtain in the foreground, while in “So Far, So Near” she becomes now the page across which the texts of bass and drums take form. Despite being over nine minutes long, the album’s closer passes like a windblown leaf among countless others, even so yielding unforgettable color.
Motian offers five tracks, including his classic “Flight of the Bluejay,” which in this rendition flits about with descriptive perfection. Like its namesake, it cycles between lyrical glides and punctuations of caution. “The Storyteller” is notable for its sustained arpeggios and for the archaeological precision of its composer. So, too, “The Sunflower,” a brief yet sparkling ode to photosynthesis. But the two tracks marked “Cosmology” show the trio at its interlocking best, as does “Limbo,” one of two tunes by Helias; the other being “Harmonic Line,” which is the album’s most melodic and contains the first proper solo of the set, accompanied only by drums, painting the ripples of Crispell’s pebble dropping.
In the purview of these masters, each the side to a pliant yet unbreakable triangle, the title of Motian’s “Play” is as much a noun as a verb. There is, accordingly, a stark awareness of the stage, of the performance, of the importance of every set piece and backdrop. Every gesture gives off a constellation, each star a seed for countless more. Crispell is that rare pianist who can erase a picture in the same gesture that paints it. With a single wave of her hand across the water’s surface, she resets every reflection before it can pull us in like Narcissus. She is the storyteller, recording her fleeting narratives so that listeners might forever experience of the poetry of their immediacy, if not vice versa.