Paul Motian has created a unique place for himself in the annals of jazz drumming by being one of its most implicit players. More colourist than timekeeper, he's developed a style where very little often suggests so much. He's brought his "less is more aesthetic to projects by artists like Bill Evans, Paul Bley, and Marilyn Crispell, but his twenty year-old trio with guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist Joe Lovano has exploited his strengths to greatest effect.
Over eleven albumssome augmented with gueststhey've evolved their own unique take on jazz and popular standards. But their finest work, where their spacious approach to collective improvisation shines the most, has been on albums weighted most heavily towards Motian's own curious compositional style. Motian's tunes can be as informed by Eastern European folk music as more traditional jazz conventions; he leans towards spare themes and ethereal harmonic backdrops that drive the trio into areas of abstraction. Obscure? Yes, but consistently captivating in their sheer and deceptively simplistic beauty.
With 1995's At the Village Vanguard numbered 80 of 81, Winter & Winter's remastered reissues of the once-extinct JMT catalogue is drawing to a close, and what a lovely note on which to end it. Comprised entirely of Motian originalswith the exception of "You Took the Words Right Out of My Heart the recording provides an intriguing contrast to the trio's most recent release, I Have the Room Above Her. The more involved production style of Manfred Eicher on the latter, Motian's first album for ECM as a leader in twenty years, sharply contrasts with Stefan Winter's relatively hands-off approach on this reissue from a decade ago. Both are equally fine records which exist on the same musical continuum, but where Eicher leans the group in a singularly ethereal direction, At the Village Vanguard is more stylistically diverse.
That's not to say the trio eschews the kind of textural ambience and harmonic ambiguity that makes I Have the Room Above Her such a warm experience. "Folk Song For Rosie is rife with Frisell's heavily effected guitar, finding Lovano at his most lyrical and Motian creating a wealth of rhythmic ideas underneath, sometimes seemingly at odds with the more languid goings on above. "Yahllah also revolves around an atmospheric, albeit considerably darker motif. Communal intuition rises to a level that transcends obvious affectationmore felt than heard, each player becomes an equal participant in the understated push-and-pull that gives even the lightest passage a delicate tension.
But there's also a sense of levity and playfulness to be found on this live recording. The folksy trill of "The Owl of Cranston provides a foundation for one of Frisell's most subtly witty solos, while "Circle Dance swings in its own unique way.
There's also a greater energy on At the Village Vanguard. But whether steeped in airy ambiguity or a more defined rhythmic pulse, Motian and his trio create an open-ended sound that remains unique and highly influential.
Personnel: Joe Lovano: tenor saxophone; Bill Frisell: guitar, guitar synthesizer; Paul Motian: drums.