Paul Motian (ECM 2260-65)

Paul Motian ONM

As ECM producer Manfred Eicher tells Ethan Iverson in the booklet that accompanies this timely Old & New Masters edition, Paul Motian (1931-2011) was more than a drummer. He was also a poet. Motian had a sense about the pen which, like his impulses at the kit, never bothered to obsess over the whole picture. He was more concerned with the bare minimum pieces to indicate the theme of any puzzle on which he laid hands. That was enough for him. The six albums collected here are therefore to be taken not as a grand narrative or musical résumé, but as four border pieces and two middles. That should be enough for us.

It is significant that the cover art for this set—part of ECM’s coveted Old & New Masters series—should break the trend of previous releases, all of which are clothed in minimal text against white backgrounds. The image originally jacketed Conception Vessel, an album conceived at the express behest of Eicher, who encouraged Motian to lead his debut album as composer and leader in 1972. So began a four-decade relationship, of which only a fraction is represented in the present collection. Its radial design may be read as a sigil for the man himself: a creative sun whose light abandons center for periphery.

Conception Vessel

Conception Vessel (ECM 1028; also included as part of ECM’s Touchstones series)

Paul Motian percussion
Keith Jarrett piano, flute
Charlie Haden bass
Sam Brown guitar
Leroy Jenkins violin
Becky Friend flute
Recorded November 25/26, 1972 at Butterfly and Sound Ideas Studios, New York
Engineers: Kurt Rapp and George Klabin
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Considering that Paul Motian was 41 when he recorded Conception Vessel, it’s clear to see why his disposition was so amenable to the dawn. As a human being, his voice had already come into its own and needed only the blessing of the score to give it shape without words. Then again, there are the titles, which for all their naked evocativeness retain an enigmatic patina. “Georgian Bay” congeals with the steady plucking of guitarist Sam Brown, who cuts a striking, if subtle, figure across the album’s filmic canvas. Supported only by a smattering of cymbals and Charlie Haden’s crab-walking bass lines, the tune betrays little of Motian’s prowess, saving it instead for “Ch’i Energy,” a flurried solo through which his centrality blossoms in non-confrontational power. This makes the looser affair of “Rebica” all the more lyrical. Haden is in peak form in this guitar-bass-drums setting. One moment finds him providing ground support, while in the next he has already ventured off into more airborne ruminations. Brown returns after a pensive resistance, flirting with the music’s surface like a drowsy Derek Bailey. The title track raises the curtain for Keith Jarrett’s spotlight, which strangely does little to change the album’s surface texture. Despite a lack of (discernible) melody, the interplay between piano and drums yields talented ramifications. Though not the easiest piece of music to put one’s finger on, Jarrett’s fiery exuberance as he whoops his way along makes it one of the most intriguing cuts on the bill. The flute and percussion of “American Indian: Song Of Sitting Bull” draw up a suitable contract for the pianist’s wind-work in combination with Motian’s rattlesnake maracas. “Inspiration From a Vietnamese Lullaby” adds bass and the violin of Leroy Jenkins to the same in the interest of new improvisatory heights. These are exactly the kind of rituals that Jarrett lived for in the 70s (see his recently unearthed Hamburg ’72, also with Haden and Motian), and the oracle-like qualities of their architecture hold up well beneath the weight of time.

Despite being headed by a drummer, Conception Vessel eschews the trappings of mundane grooves as indication of Motian’s lifelong mapping of branches over roots. The jacket art again proves instructive, describing a sound oriented toward invisible directions yet which is also mothered by the soil. It is furthermore a worthy example of ECM’s early sound and openness to those at the head of the line who share the label’s ongoing passion for pushing, if not defining, boundaries.

Tribute

Tribute (ECM 1048)

Carlos Ward alto saxophone
Sam Brown acoustic and electric guitars
Paul Metzke electric guitar
Charlie Haden bass
Paul Motian percussion
Recorded May 1974, Generation Sound Studios, New York
Engineers: Tony May and Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Motian’s second ECM project finds the multitalented drummer-composer in comforting repose. Transcending the pianistic sound that mystified his earlier efforts, Motian pulls in the loose strands of guitarists Sam Brown and Paul Metzke to his ever-expanding loom. Bookending the set are two Brown/Haden/Motian trios. The flowering classical guitar and tenderly applied drumming of “Victoria” provide a magnetic backdrop for Carlos Ward’s smoldering alto, all the while developing into a snapshot of urban night. One imagines Brown sitting on a balcony ledge, drawing from the squalor below (where Ward plays on a streetlit corner) a most soulful evocation of the dark’s hidden messages. Clouds part, but reveal no stars. Haden’s “Song For Ché” is even more somber. Ward’s absence makes room for the composer’s gorgeous solo as maracas slither by with the grace of a rattlesnake in a rather distanced version of this major tune. Ornette Coleman’s “War Orphans” is the nucleus of the album. Soulfully rendered and lovingly arranged, it drifts in on a tide of history. Our frontman shines in “Tuesday Ends Saturday,” a more blatantly post-bop affair that slides briefly into brighter days. Amplified guitars converge like a doubled Marc Ribot before careening their separate ways, even as heavy cymbal crashes from Motian threaten to drown out the other instruments (clear separation in the recording, however, ensures this never happens). Which leaves us with “Sod House,” a crepuscular and blurrily moving image in which guitars ride a crest of bass and drums.

Original Tribute
Original cover

Astute extemporization and feel for melody make this one of ECM’s most evocative first-decade releases. Motian finds songs in every instrument. He gives us little indication as to who or what the album is a tribute to, but I suspect it need be nothing more than a tribute to the journey of making music, and to the indomitable spirit of an art form that is forever unpacking itself along the way.

Dance

Dance (ECM 1108)

Paul Motian drums, percussion
David Izenzon bass
Charles Brackeen soprano and tenor saxophones
Recorded September 1977 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

In 1977, Motian set a new precedent when, with this first trio album, he loosed his brand of chamber jazz into the world. The late David Izenzon on bass and fellow Coleman cohort Charles Brackeen on reeds completed the package, tied up nicely with six of Motian’s engaging compositions. The titles thereof seem only loosely linked to their denouement, assuming they were ever meant to be descriptive in the first place. Either way, the results are so visceral that headings need not apply.

Brackeen is primarily known as a tenor player, but on Dance he employs the soprano almost exclusively. The only exception is in the penultimate “Prelude,” where at last we get a blast of his guttural métier for a marked change in diction. It writhes with the power to deepen the trio’s abandoned sound from sweeping agitation to smoky elegy in a single change of embouchure. Contrast this with the Garbarek-like salutations of “Kalypso” or the relaxed sopranism of “Asia,” which walks a trail of meandering beauty that is the album’s calling card. As can be expected, there are intenser moments to be had, as in the tight squeals of the opening “Waltz Song” and the wilder forays of the title cut. The latter also offers some fine duo-ship with Izenzon as well as with Motian, who seems to drop his sticks in great number from varying heights. Through the glitter of “Lullaby” we hear the stars of our slumber turned into song. The bass hints at a long-dead groove in which we can only grasp a sliver of faded glory. We revel instead in its ruins, where the dance really takes place. There, it is the bass that lulls us, pulling its feet under the covers in a frigid evening, curled like a child hoping to awaken from a bad dream.

Dance is a wayfarer’s song. Yet the trio is passionately disinterested in the wandering itself and has eyes instead for the geographies it has yet to tread. Like a spring that winds itself tighter but never snaps, every melody is packed with lethal energy. The music relies on this tension, compressed like continental plates beneath unfathomable oceans. As land grows scarcer, the musical remainder becomes our vegetations, our lifeways, our civilizations, and we are left standing in the middle, watching as history takes its first steps.

Le Voyage

Le Voyage (ECM 1138)

Paul Motian drums, percussion
Jean-Francois Jenny-Clark double bass
Charles Brackeen tenor and soprano saxophones
Recorded March 1979 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Le Voyage is dear to my heart for opening with one of ECM’s crowning achievements in production, musicianship, and song. As Brackeen’s bluesy soprano in “Folk Song For Rosie” sweeps across that sandy backdrop of bass—courtesy of the late J.F. Jenny-Clark, replacing David Izenson in the trio’s previous lineup—and Motian’s brushed drums, one can be sure that more beautiful landscapes will be few and far between. The sax fades into the mystical silence from which it arose, making way for gelatinous bassing before a mournful return. A careful selection of gongs and drums awaits in “Abacus,” in which Brackeen dazzles with an enlivening tenor solo. After this detour, Motian breaks into his own erratic asides. The studio miking distances his voice, making it seem as if he were a barely visible conjurer stretching his arms across time and space to produce an impossible array of statements before our very eyes. The arco intro of “Cabala/Drum Music” glides into Motian’s fluttering hands, which bid bass and tenor to speak in themes. Brackeen and Jenny-Clark shine again in “The Sunflower,” pouring a vast oasis of energy into which the final, and title, track dips its feet with measured grace.

Though the title of Motian’s fourth ECM album is in the singular, its results are undeniably in the plural. The unspoken virtuosity required here humbly defers itself to three credos: Melody, Moment, and Mood. Its sounds come to life only behind the closed eyes of a relaxed mind and body. Each solo feels connected to the others, as if by tendon, lighting our inner landscapes with signifiers that over eons blur into one soft and silent flame. This album epitomizes the “ECM sound,” even as it transcends all such arbitrary categories in favor of a more immediate form of communication that looks beyond the physical self and into the translucent thread that connects it to all else.

Those looking for a groove may want to move on, but do so at their own peril, for they will be missing out on one of Motian’s finest.

Psalm

Psalm (ECM 1222)

Paul Motian drums
Bill Frisell guitar
Ed Schuller bass
Joe Lovano tenor saxophone
Billy Drewes tenor and alto saxophones
Recorded December 1981 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The Paul Motian Band, short-lived in the incarnation captured here, enables a curious experience with Psalm. “Motian” may as well mean “mystical,” for such are the turns that await the curious listener. It’s not that he has access to some hidden pocket in the ether, from which he pulls a wallet of compositional currency. He simply trusts in his fellow musicians enough to follow wherever they might lead. And what a group to be led by. Between Joe Lovano’s singing tenor and the serpentine licks of guitarist Bill Frisell, not to mention an infusion of supremely warm engineering, even critical listeners are sure to find something of intrigue.

Some of the album’s landscapes, like those of the lush title track and “Fantasm,” cultivate a heat-distorted crop of pliant reeds and guitars. One is tempted to read dreams into them, when in fact nothing can be so fleeting as those enigmas that already make life even less graspable. Such would seem to be the meaning behind titles like “White Magic,” which, despite their serrated edges and deep thematic scouting missions, are nebulous constructions at heart. Other diversions, such as “Boomerang” and “Mandeville,” have Frisell written all over them, to say nothing of his solo “Etude,” a liquid font of melodic wisdom that stretches like an acrobat during warm-up. Motian does occasionally step into the foreground (“Second Hand”), but would rather bask in the viscosity of his own skeletal tunes, and in the tenderness of his band mates’ refractions of them—Ed Schuller’s rosy bass work in “Yahllah” being one example.

Though Psalm may be rightly considered a classic, it doesn’t aspire to be. It is instead an altogether metaphorical experience to enjoy uninterrupted and in total acceptance. These musicians have surely seen more lucid days, but may remember few so enchanting as this.

it should've happened a long time ago

it should’ve happened a long time ago (ECM 1283)

Paul Motian drums, percussion
Bill Frisell guitar, guitar synthesizer
Joe Lovano tenor saxophone
Recorded July 1984 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

It was by sheer coincidence that I first heard it should’ve happened a long time ago on the very day I later learned of its leader’s death. The title, therefore, will always be a poignant one for me, as if to say: You should’ve seen him while you still had the chance. And while it saddens me to have to add Paul Motian to the ever-growing list of uncompromising artists I will never experience firsthand (Montserrat Figueras would die one day later), I also feel fortunate to have encountered this awe-inspiring album so late in the game. New music has tended to come into my life only at such times as I’ve been prepared for it, and this album is no exception, for had I heard it even a few years ago I might never have given it a second listen. Suffice it to say when I heard it on 22 November 2011, it left an indelible mark, rendered as an emotional tattoo by the sad news that followed it.

The cast of should’ve is rounded out by guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist Joe Lovano, both truly coming into their own at the time of this recording (1984). Lovano’s fluid tenor proves a superb complement to Frisell’s briny swells, positively singing with a dark amethyst tone in the opening title cut. “Fiasco,” on the other hand, foregrounds Frisell, who sounds like a synth in its death throes (all the while making it sing). Meanwhile, Lovano stills this discomfort with heavy inoculations of medical wisdom. This is followed by a gorgeous reprise of “Conception Vessel” that depicts the changes Motian had undergone since the selfsame masterwork had been laid down twelve years prior. One now finds a more internal evocation, brought to the consistency of bubbling lava by Frisell’s quiet heat and Lovano’s pockets of air.

Like the album as a whole, “Introduction” is another dip inward. This somber solo from Frisell primes us for the resplendent territories of “India.” Motian paints an awesome picture, which with each sparkling step brings us closer to its thematic core, traced in relief by Lovano’s lilting horn. “In The Year Of The Dragon” indeed slinks and curls like the long, scaled creature of myth, cutting rhythms across the sky with every whip of its tail. The licks of Lovano’s sax are like the glint of an eye trained curiously ahead, even as its energy radiates through the fields and villages below. Frisell’s picking is at once straight-edged and ess-curved. We end with “Two Women From Padua,” which lays Lovano over Frisell’s breaking circuits—this a mere preamble for gossamer unraveling. Lovano crawls like a spider along Frisell’s webs, strung between those raspy branches of Motian’s drums.

Despite the occasional burst of abstraction, this is a thoroughly relaxing album and one easy to get lost in. The musicians’ talents are affirmed in their restraint. While this may not be the frontman’s most brilliant album, the Motian experience was never about “brilliance,” but rather about openness to the darker corners of the ever-evolving psyche known as jazz. Now that he is gone, may that darkness welcome him into peaceful rest.

Jarrett/Haden/Motian: Hamburg ’72 (ECM 2422)

Hamburg 1972

Keith Jarrett
Charlie Haden
Paul Motian
Hamburg ’72

Keith Jarrett piano, soprano saxophone, flute, percussion
Charlie Haden double bass
Paul Motian drums, percussion
NDR-Jazz-Workshop 1972
Radio producer: Michael Naura
Recording engineer: Hans-Heinrich Breitkreuz
Recorded live June 14, 1972 in Hamburg
Remixed July 12, 2014 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo by Jan Erik Kongshaug and Manfred Eicher
Album produced by Manfred Eicher

We may only speculate as to the untold Keith Jarrett riches still locked away in ECM’s vaults. The releases of Sleeper and, more recently, No End were but the tip of what is shaping up to be a majestic mountain indeed. Where those albums respectively showed us Jarrett’s European Quartet and homebody experiments, here lies something in between: a fearless document of a composer and improviser at the top of his game. Make that three.

We may make much of the fact that bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Paul Motian are no longer with us, and that hearing them in this impervious creative triangle is like witnessing a resurrection. The trio was Jarrett’s first power group and had been in existence for six years already before the capture of this live recording at Hamburg’s NDR Funkhaus. Mixed by Manfred Eicher from the master tapes with engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug at Oslo’s Rainbow Studio in 2014—one day, we learn from the album’s press release, after Haden’s death—it is now in the public ear and here to stay.

Jarrett Hamburg

We may marvel at the nostalgic archaeology of Jarrett’s compositions, of which the thumbnail “Life, Dance” is exclusive to this album. Its breath of an intro gives the floor to Haden, who confirms mastery in less than three minutes. Haden and Jarrett slip hand-to-glove in “Everything That Lives Laments,” only now the pianist abandons keys for the spirit song of a wooden flute over Motian’s jangling percussion. Haden works the land until the piano sprouts from it like a tree. The sunny-side-up “Piece For Ornette” reminds us not only of Haden’s former tenure with Coleman, but also of what Jarrett might have been in another life: a soprano saxophonist of invention and merit. His dance finds purchase on an invigorating carpet, as laid down by attuned rhythmatists, lighting up the sky with firework potential. Motian is no less incendiary, but lights his playing as if by match to kerosene, keen to catch the ashes of Jarrett’s high-velocity chromatism in hands cupped like upturned cymbals. Lastly for this crop is “Take Me Back,” in which Haden’s echoes yield more reactive bassing. Equal parts jam band session (listen for Jarrett on tambourine for a spell before diving back into the keyboard) and gospel gush, it launches the trio into a prime, if not primal, groove.

We may further delight in the album’s outer edges. “Rainbow” opens with a hands-in-the-earth intro from Jarrett, whose first wife Margot pens the tune. In realizing the latter’s thematic structure, the full trio slides organically into place. Motian’s starry cymbals are foregrounded, while Jarrett caroms from one to another, leaving constellations in his wake. At the other end is “Song For Che,” which in this intimate, 15-minute version unclogs previously neglected arteries of interpretation. As the crowning jewel of Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, it defines personal and historic eras alike. After the leaping and lurking of Jarrett’s soprano, Haden works his arco magic to call the piano back into being before wading through the marsh alone toward closure, alive as ever.

We may do all of this and more, but forget that every act becomes part of the grander archive the moment it transpires. So while you’re enjoying this surprise dug up from the past with a glass of wine, take a moment to stare at your own reflection in that circle of burgundy and know that you are part of the music’s history as well.

(To hear samples of Hamburg ’72, click here.)

Paul Motian: Lost In A Dream (ECM 2128)

Lost In A Dream

Paul Motian
Lost In A Dream

Chris Potter tenor saxophone
Jason Moran piano
Paul Motian drums
Recorded live February 2009 at the Village Vanguard, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Drummer Paul Motian, saxophonist Chris Potter, and pianist Jason Moran: the kind of dream you want to get lost in. This equilateral triangle of melody, form, and affect came together at Motian’s behest for a week of performances at New York’s Village Vanguard, from which he and producer Manfred Eicher culled the present disc. These live morsels reflect a cross-section of Motian’s career as both performer (by this point having shared about a decade of history with Potter and a single performance with Moran) and composer (all the tunes, some new and some old, are by Motian, except for a sweet take on Irving Berlin’s “Be Careful It’s My Heart”).

Among the album’s many benefits, it’s particularly wonderful to hear Potter, a player known for his robust command and dynamism, emote with such artful delicacy. In both “Birdsong” (last heard on TATI, in the company of Enrico Rava and Stefano Bollani) and “Mode VI,” Potter elicits tons of emotional power by his restraint. In the latter tune especially, which opens the album with a whisper, he fans the trio’s creative pilot light in pastels and charcoals. He also knows when to set the horn aside, letting Moran and Motian play on as a duo, drums brushing away the piano’s footprints in a dance as melodic as anything elicited at the keyboard. Motian is indeed the core of this music’s being, turning on a ballerina’s toe in a light made audible by breath, reed, and chamber.

If not obvious already, Motian and his bandmates are as much painters as they are musicians. Their evocative skills turn simple titles like “Casino” and “Blue Midnight” into moving pictures. A lone figure sits at the betting table, a losing hand before him. The only real comfort comes from the piano bar, the music of which slices through his inebriation like a paper cut, an Ace of Spades flicked toward the heart, where it remains lodged in hopes that something other than its pip might bleed. The looseness of such moments best exemplifies the photo montage on the album’s cover, which teases out regularity from city streets. (At one point, Potter and Moran lapse into simple scales, as if to remind themselves that even abstraction begins with practice.) Here is where the musculature of the trio becomes paramount, as tactile as its subject matter is ethereal.

The title track is the most grounded tune. Moran’s playing is sumptuous here. The gently insistent rhythm hints at swing, but shelves catharsis for another day. “Ten,” by comparison, ups the heat with a bubbling, rubato energy that draws the crowd. It is the exhale to the inhale of “Drum Music” and “Abacus,” established tunes that reference Motian’s classic Le Voyage. Where one unleashes a torrent of startlingly fractal music, the other cradles the most masterful turn of the set in the form of Motian’s solo. Bookended by thematic confirmations, it is the genius of an artist speaking as one with his instrument rather than through it. It lingers on the palate long after the finish, drawn through the concluding “Cathedral Song” beneath the skim of Moran’s night sailing and Potter’s hymnal moon.

This trio, in this context, emotes so tenderly that it might collapse in on itself were it not for the strength of its bones. It speaks to us as it speaks to the cosmos: without the need for translation. Your body comes pre-equipped to decode its poetry, and when you buy this album, you are giving yourself a sacred gift. If you love jazz, then do your heart some good and bring these sounds home. A masterpiece, pure and simple.

Paul Motian Band: Garden of Eden (ECM 1917)

Garden of Eden

Paul Motian Band
Garden of Eden

Chris Cheek tenor and alto saxophone
Tony Malaby tenor saxophone
Jakob Bro guitar
Ben Monder guitar
Steve Cardenas guitar
Jerome Harris bass
Paul Motian drums
Recorded November 2004, Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Paul Motian was nothing if not unpredictable, and on Garden of Eden he degausses the jazz landscape not for the first time. The album represents a headlong dive into bebop roots, but also a tangling of their pathways. More than his refashioning, however, it is the instrumentation that holds the most surprises. In addition to bassist Jerome Harris (previously heard alongside the legendary drummer on Bill Frisell’s Rambler), Motian welcomes not one or even two but three guitarists (Jakob Bro, Ben Monder, and Steve Cardenas) and tenorists Tony Malaby and Chris Cheek (also on alto duty) for a session that is equal parts comfort food and new wave. Interestingly enough, the former comes from Motian’s newer tunes, while qualities of the latter infuse the tried and true.

Two Charles Mingus tunes open the set with a stage-setting contrast of temperatures and climates. “Pithecanthropus Erectus” finds Motian in a state of subtle swing, spearheading cool, spacious pockets of force. Beneath tasteful soloing from Cheek and chromatic flourishes from Malaby, Harris works his groove-mind, even as the guitarists kindle the music’s inner glow. Despite, if not because of, the assembly, such progressive tunes seem to float, while the leisurely crawl of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” is far denser due to its high emotional thread count. Through its crosstalk of guitars and reeds echoes a graceful photosynthesis.

Motian’s snare is profound in its variety. A sound at once hollow and resonant, it begs attention, a light visible in the thickest fog. It is central to his craft not only as a player, but also as a composer. In this role Motian excels beauteously with seven viscous originals, in particular the title track, which moves like globules in a lava lamp and, along with Jerome Kern’s “Bill” (from the musical Show Boat), paves the album’s dreamiest thoroughfares. Other wonders: the slipstream “Mesmer,” in which Motian spackles highlights with his cymbals, characteristically insistent yet accommodating; the spider-webbed guitars of “Prelude 2 Narcissus” and “Manhattan Melodrama,” each a radiation of moonlight; and “Etude,” which has put on some shadows since its appearance on 1982’s Psalm.

Cheek and Cardenas each contribute a tune. “Desert Dream” is the saxophonist’s modal vision, a haunting piece of cartography that side-winds into the guitarist’s “Balata.” In both, themes act as concave bookends to even more concave departures. The wave takes us back to finish, looking to Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence” and Charlie Parker’s
“Cheryl” for closure. Both manifest the full tactility of bebop, thus cinching one of Motian’s finest records on any label.

Is this where jazz is going? Hardly. This is where jazz already was. It only took a genius like Motian to hear it that way. A crime not to savor.

Paul Motian Trio: I Have The Room Above Her (ECM 1902)

I Have The Room Above Her

Paul Motian Trio
I Have The Room Above Her

Bill Frisell guitar
Joe Lovano tenor saxophone
Paul Motian drums
Recorded April 2004, Avatar Studio, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Produced by Manfred Eicher

I Have The Room Above Her continues drummer-composer Paul Motian’s depth-journeying with guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist Joe Lovano, who, in line with Motian’s free, integral thinking, compress coals into diamonds with every meeting captured on record. Here especially, they prove that, “power trio” though they may be, their power thrums beneath the flowers rather than shining down on them.

The lion’s share of this, the trio’s third outing for ECM, is comprised of new Motian material, although backward glances do lurk here and there. Among the latter, “Dance” is the quintessential blast from the past. Not only because it comes from Motian’s 1978 album of the same name, but also quite simply because of his youthful, euphoric playing. Thelonious Monk’s “Dreamland,” which caps the set, balances darkness and light with equal profundity—an affirmation of all things that resound. And then there is, of course, the title track, which in these six simpatico hands yawns into something far beyond its roots (in the musical Show Boat) and establishes a dark street scene in its place. As after-midnight stragglers enjoy the drunken air, a lone figure ambles his way through, slips into cold sheets, and dreams of a time when ill-fated hearts might beat as one. It is Lovano who evokes this lonely routine, swaying through the night with inebriated pall but also a hard-won beauty that burns in the chest like a star.

The greatest secrets of Room, however, can be found glistening in Motian’s “Osmosis Part III,” which begins the album as if midsentence yet brims with consummate sentiment. Frisell provides enchanting starlight by way of his tasteful electronic looping. Lovano, meanwhile, brings the pulse of the moon, and Motian the dance of its light upon water. There is savory thinking in this first encounter, and much more to be found in repeat listening, where the business of “Odd Man Out” (notable for Lovano’s channeling of Charles Lloyd) sits comfortably alongside the softer alloys of “Shadows,” and the percolating snare of “The Riot Act” (enhanced by computerized reflections from Frisell) funnels organically into the bluesy whimsy of “The Bag Man.”

Above all, it is the aching melodies that bloom widest. Be they the modal strains of “Harmony” or the shifting tectonics of “Sketches,” chains of notes seem to rain from Motian’s cymbals, even as his bandmates evaporate them back into cloud forms. As spoken through the anthemic qualities of “One In Three,” each theme leads listeners like torchlight through a cave. It traces archways of stone and glyph, only to find naked and inviting cause.

For as long as Motian walked this earth and spoke his rhythms true, he left few fuses as surge-proof as this. Part of an unfathomable circuit, it will forever be, running on an electricity all its own.

Paul Motian Trio: Time and Time Again (ECM 1992)

Time and Time Again

Paul Motian Trio
Time and Time Again

Joe Lovano tenor saxophone
Bill Frisell guitar
Paul Motian drums
Recorded May 2006 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Paul Motian: a drummer of such intuition that his kit might as well have been a part of his body. Joe Lovano: a saxophonist who lights the way with darkness. Bill Frisell: a guitarist who turns six strings into a symphony. A trio to die for. Then again, why deprive yourself of the luxury? A trio, then, to live for.

Since first meeting in the context of Motian’s Psalm quintet, this nimble nexus worked its tunes for decades from the inside out with freshness intact. As per usual, most of this session’s thematic material comes to us by way of Motian, whose “Cambodia” joins guitar and drums in methodological harmony. Frisell plays around the melody in much the same way that Motian plays around the beat, each descriptive in his approach (check, for example, the crystalline “Whirlpool”), so that when Lovano’s cautious lyricism slinks into the picture, we welcome him as an alley might welcome a stray cat with a song that defines the night. Such feline moods flow through a good portion of the set list, curling their tails around highlights “In Remembrance Of Things Past” and “K.T.” In the latter tune, Motian makes yin and yang of snare and cymbal.

Yet where he truly shines (if not also shades) is in those tracks penned by others, each a space in which he feels content to lurk in admiration of his bandmates’ sensitivities. From the Rodgers and Hammerstein show tune “This Nearly Was Mine” and the luminous spirals of Monk’s “Light Blue” to Lovano’s “Party Line,” the drummer’s capacities for melody, swing, and subtlety are on full display. He walks on beds of flowers, leaving pollen for many beds more.

For all the album’s listlessness, an undeniable clarity of expression abounds. We hear this especially in “Onetwo,” both for its thematic fortitude and presence of mind, and in the concluding title ballad. From strings of ordinary things, it weaves extraordinary pictures. The free spirit that moves this trio surfaces nakedly in these swan minutes, turning postcard into movie and recollection into reality.

Bley/Peacock/Motian: Not Two, Not One (ECM 1670)

Not Two, Not One

Not Two, Not One

Paul Bley piano
Gary Peacock double-bass
Paul Motian drums
Recorded January 1998 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James Farber
Produced by Manfred Eicher

This album documents a monumental coming together of pianist Paul Bley, bassist Gary Peacock, and drummer Paul Motian, a combination not seen on record since Paul Bley with Gary Peacock, laid down in 1963 and issued 1970 as ECM’s third release. Here the trio picks up where it left off some 35 years before, furthering a journey of deconstruction its members have since charted separately in various combinations. And combinations are really what this session is about, for the trio turns kaleidoscopically throughout, emphasizing certain angles over others in a constant shifting of crystals. One moment finds us mired in the quiet urban fantasies of “Don’t You Know,” in which Bley pours out every last drop from his flask of introspection, while the next tantalizes with “Fig Foot” (“Big Foot” by another name), last heard on Adventure Playground. Bley latterly dances like fire, erratic yet unified by elemental force, following a pattern that is beyond our ken. Peacock is duly inspired in his solo against a delicate swing from Motian, who stays the course with an effervescent washtub beat.

The album’s most notable soundings come from Bley’s pianism, which revels in the depths granted it by studio access to a Bösendorfer. Bley bathes in its open possibilities, moving from a sunny intro in “Not Zero – In Three Parts” to lively reveals of the instrument’s vibrating inner core. This touches off a spate of drums from Motian, whose own soliloquy takes root in the ethereal, and inspires from Peacock a solo that balances integrity with unruliness and ushers in the trio proper with bold progression. Bley’s zither-like touches tip the scales toward all-out swing. “Now” similarly digs low, forming a cascading and complex solo of bridge-cabled intensity. “Vocal Tracked” also finds Bley alone, this time pushing notes like pins into an entomologist’s specimen board. Peacock likewise enchants with “Entelechy,” an elliptical solo track that shows a master at work. He further contributes two tunes: the pirouetted “Intente” and the restless marginalia of “Set Up Set.” Each turns itself like a sentient children’s top, waiting for the moment when its inertia will falter.

Yet together is how the trio shines. In “Noosphere” they work as one amorphous blob, carefree yet passionate. A many-petaled solo from Peacock bespeaks an undaunted hand, thereby flinging the veil of obscurity in favor of transparent expression against Motian’s profound susurrations. And after a luxurious dip in the balladic waters of “Dialogue Amour,” the trio tightens the drawstring with “Not Zero – In One Part,” a brief and burrowing coda.

These three sages of modern jazz neither break down borders nor blaze trails. Rather, they ignore those borders altogether and shape their music as it comes: bare yet flavorful enough to shock your taste buds into bliss.

Crispell/Peacock/Motian: Nothing ever was, anyway – Music of Annette Peacock (ECM 1626/27)

Nothing ever was, anyway – Music of Annette Peacock

Marilyn Crispell piano
Gary Peacock double-bass
Paul Motian drums
Annette Peacock voice
Recorded September 1996 at Right Track Recording Studios, New York
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

It’s astonishing to think that the music of Annette Peacock, given its rare and just dues on this essential 1997 release, has not been buried under more attention. Then again, when listening to it in the hands of pianist Marilyn Crispell (in her ECM debut), bassist Gary Peacock, and drummer Paul Motian, we feel it casting itself into a well of reflection so deep that it burrows out the other side of the earth, far beyond our reach. That it remains true to heart is part of its magic.

Annette’s mode of choice is the ballad, through which she forges sweeping landscapes of understatement. Her music is skeletal in the truest sense, using bones not as anchors for flesh, but rather as chambers for marrow and quiet emotional floods. The title track doubles as bookend, clothing us with and stripping us of a sound-world that thrives on the shadows of its language. These utterances are fleeting, imperative smiles that turn cloud into rain, lifting themselves like sentient decals from the sheet of time and turning slowly toward the splash of adhesion introduced by the rhythm section’s entrance. That the latter borders on superfluous is by no fault of the musicians, but by nature of Annette’s music, which is anything but simple. It is, rather, so full that the stony and rounded sighs our guides manage to elicit breathe with the density of a philosophical act.

Crispell tours a gallery of traveling installations, reflections of experiences served on two CDs for the nourishment of the sonically hungry. “Butterflies that I feel inside me” finds bassist Peacock in motion, redefining space with the humble genius he has brought to so many ECM sessions before and since. Here there is something more than the sum of his strings, as each player brings out the best in the other. Listen to the fissures of pure bliss in “open, to love” or “Albert’s Love Theme” and be moved as the trio opens intuitively, cutting a relenting and cinematic cloth into silhouettes of reason. An unexpected cameo from the composer herself draws a frayed thread through “Dreams (If time weren’t).” Annette’s vocals, raw to the core, embrace words like children of sentiment in a tale of fate and circumstance. This opens a path for Gary to indulge his apportioned commentaries, and for Crispell to voice every whisper of the heart that moves her. Following this is “touching,” which might as well be the ethos of the entire set. Touching is the focus of its attention. Touching is the embodiedness of the mood, which selects points of contact so carefully that it can only be spontaneous.

Let us not gloss over Motian, who is a wonder. His banter is forever sincere and offsets monologues with unerring intimacy. From the Carl Stalling-inspired “cartoon” and on through a string of brilliant vignettes that includes “Miracles” and “Ending,” we arrive at the arrayed sensitivity of “Blood.” It is the taste of an album that, by its end, has become a mirror within a mirror, at once reflector and reflected. Needling its compass toward the stillest horizon, it stands out like a name in a culture of anonymity.

Masabumi Kikuchi Trio: Sunrise (ECM 2096)

Masabumi Kikuchi Trio
Sunrise

Masabumi Kikuchi piano
Thomas Morgan double bass
Paul Motian drums
Recorded September 2009 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Assistant: Rick Kwan
Produced by Manfred Eicher

On paper, Tokyo-born pianist Masabumi Kikuchi may look the stranger, but put laser to disc and we’ve known him for decades. His prodigious talents were already clear in his teens, by which time he was sharing stages with Lionel Hampton and Sonny Rollins. He cut his first record—1963’s East & West—for Victor with Toshiko Akiyoshi and Charlie Mariano, the latter of course with formative ECM connections in work with Eberhard Weber. Kikuchi would get even closer to the label when he formed a trio with Gary Peacock and Paul Motian in the early 90s, releasing a string of albums under the moniker Tethered Moon for Winter & Winter. From there, Kikuchi continued his alliance with Motian on this ECM debut, adding 31-year-old bassist Thomas Morgan, for his most intuitive session yet. Having torn a page or two from the book of Paul Bley in the past, Kikuchi cites Motian as a major influence on his more recent endeavors, and indeed we feel in his artistry a pianistic equivalent of the late drummer, forever curious about what might be dancing just around the corner. That this would be Motian’s penultimate recording makes his contributions all the more poignant. His tsking filigree and palatable intimacy treads every rubato path like a millipede, predicting likeminded bursts of spontaneity from the keys.

Three tracks marked “Ballad” twine their way into the album’s skeleton, its veins pulsing with the nourishment of a freely improvised suite in ten parts. The lack of rehearsal is proportional to the music’s power of realization, rendering arbitrary such individual titles as “New Day” and “Short Stuff,” in spite of their economy of description. The listener will note that our idiosyncratic leader has a vocal presence, not so much singing like Jarrett as straining and growling against the tide that threatens to subsume him. As for Morgan, his bass creeps in at times like sounds from dreams upon waking. His gestures are listless and sincere, each a new ligament that leaves us stilled in golden light.

Kikuchi’s surname (菊地), if one wants to be literal about it, translates to “land of chrysanthemums.” It’s an appropriate analogy for quiet splendor of this all-too-ephemeral trio’s sound. It is similarly horizontal, training its microscopic lens wide and far within rather than trying to spike or send it skyward, until by the end it has thinned to comforting invisibility.

(To hear samples of Sunrise, click here.)