It's now an anticipated annual event when this trio reunites for a stand at New York's storied Village Vanguard. Saxophonist Joe Lovano and guitarist Bill Frisell are superstars, of course; some of their fans may not know why Paul Motian is billed above them. But some of the most imaginative jazz of the past five decades has been powered by this subtle, versatile drummer who's now 74 years old.
Motian's work with Bill Evans is most famous. He's the drummer on Evans's first album (New Jazz Conceptions, Riverside, 1956, with bassist Teddy Kotick); his last recorded work with Evans is on Trio '64 (Verve, with Gary Peacock). But those are nearly footnotes to the famous group with bassist Scott LaFaro. From 1959 until LaFaro's tragic death in 1961, they set a new standard of trio interactiveness -- nobody was stuck in the background. They peaked on Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby (both Riverside), recorded at the same club in the same month shortly before LaFaro's death.
Others who've utilized Motian's talents include Lennie Tristano, George Russell, Marilyn Crispell, Martial Solal, Mose Allison, Carla Bley, Keith Jarrett, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Larry Goldings, Yoshiko Kishino, Alan Pasqua, and Masabumi Kikuchi's Tethered Moon -- and that's just the keyboard players.
Frisell and Lovano first recorded with Motian's quintet at the end of 1981 (Psalm, ECM), before either had made an album as a leader; that group achieved greater things when saxophonist Jim Pepper was paired with Lovano (the bassist is Ed Schuller) on a series of albums on Soul Note, most notably Misterioso (1986). A taste for the music of Thelonious Monk (with whom Motian played, albeit not on record) is highlighted by the title tune, always a high point in their sets in a playfully deconstructed arrangement. Motian first recorded the trio featuring Lovano and Frisell in 1984; among their best albums are One Time Out (Soul Note, 1987), the tribute Monk in Motian (JMT, 1991, with guests Geri Allen and Dewey Redman on two songs apiece), Trioism (JMT, 1993, with Redman), and Sound of Love (Winter & Winter, 1995), recorded at the Vanguard. (The JMT titles have been reissued on Winter & Winter.)
All the tunes are by Motian except two. "Osmosis Part III" sets the tone: playing an absolutely lovely melody, Lovano scales his normally big tone way back – he could be playing an alto. Frisell lays out delicate filigree around him and fills in the bassline as Motian foregoes a beat in favor of subtle, unpredictable accents and fills. The whole thing sounds so wispy, a light breeze would seemingly blow it away, yet it makes an undeniably powerful statement. "Sketches" is slightly more emphatic, but similarly offhand. "Odd Man Out" seems like a gentle free improvisation; then a theme appears. And then it ends. "Shadows" also sounds like it's being spun out freshly on the spot.
If not for the familiar Tin Pan Alley shape and chord progression of "I Have the Room Above Her" (Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein), it too would seem like an inspiration of the moment, so freshly and tenderly does Lovano exhale the melody. Even here, Motian abjures a time-keeping role, instead spicing the head and the solos with wonderfully varied and shaded timbres; when he does briefly lay out a regular rhythm, it's against the piece's meter rather than with it.
"Osmosis Part I" brings Frisell to the fore at first before Lovano joins in. Nearly playing in canon, they float in tandem above one of Motian's relatively more muscular excursions on this disc. "Dance" also packs quite a punch thanks to the unison statement by Frisell and Lovano of the theme; Motian is highly kinetic, truly dancing on his cymbals and snare; after the head, the players alternate entwining with the leader's roiling rhythms. At some points, Lovano sounds downright pugnacious, with some repeated phrases and altissimo excursions that are almost squeals. This whole piece might seem even more aggressive if not for the engineering, with Motian's volume seemingly adjusted to equal the others.
In a neat twist, "Harmony" sounds like a tenor-drums duet into which Frisell interjects softly or steps in unison until Lovano drops out and it becomes a drums-guitar duo before moving into a more truly trio-like confluence. Motian is vastly more rhythmically active than Lovano and especially Frisell; as on so many tracks, the instruments' normal roles seem inverted, with guitar and sax laying out a majestic carpet on which Motian cuts capers and pirouettes, though again the mix downplays this. "The Riot Act" has another unison theme statement, but with Frisell also throwing in fuller harmonies. Then the guitarist gets to deploy his electronic effects, alternating timbres in such a way as to sound like he's trading fours with himself. Lovano follows similarly, displaying his most emotional altissimo, dropping down into a fat lower-register tone, then moving into a middle range. Behind him – no, alongside him; this is music in which there is no "behind" – Frisell's effects give the players an eerie landscape to explore.
"The Bag Man" has the shortest theme; if not for periodic reappearances of that theme, it would sound like a free improvisation. Lovano's most imaginative excursions, and the most psychic interactions between Frisell and Lovano, are heard here. It ends with Frisell by himself; you never know what's going to happen when these three play. He starts "One in Three" alone as well, in a nice segue, before the others join in.
The closing "Dreamland" is credited to Monk; in fact it's the Friedman & Whitson tune "Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland," which Thelonious covered at his last studio session in 1971 (and which remained an outtake until issued on CD many years later). Motian as usual is the most restless player, constantly shifting meters as Lovano lovingly toys with the sequenced cells that make up the melody.
It may not be accurate to assume that ECM influenced the overall mood, whether by suggestion or engineering, but certainly this trio of equals has sounded more directly energetic on recordings for other labels. No matter that it doesn't give a complete picture of the group's many moods, though; I Have the Room Above Her is highly enjoyable, considerably inspired, and a worthy successor to the group's earlier albums. - Steve Holtje
The Paul Motian Trio is appearing at the Village Vanguard for two weeks starting Sept. 6 (off 9/12).
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based former editor of Creem Magazine and CDNow.com, editor of the acclaimed MusicHound Jazz: The Essential Album Guide, and contributor to The Big Takeover, Early Music America, and many other hip periodicals. He is a buyer at Sound Fix, a hot new record store in Williamsburg.