With Marilyn Crispell’s new disk, Storyteller , the implication of changing one member of a trio so deeply entrenched in group interplay was clearly evident. The same thing could be said for Tethered Moon’s new disk, Experiencing Tosca , where the rhythm section of bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Paul Motian, who were mainstays of Marilyn Crispell’s earlier ECM recordings, are teamed with pianist Masabumi Kikuchi. With the same rhythm section team and pianists who are similarly influenced by Paul Bley’s free approach, one might wonder where the differences lie. But while there are clear lines of sight between Crispell and Kikuchi, there is more to distinguish the two, despite the similar support.
The Tethered Moon group, under Kikuchi’s leadership, has been together intermittently for nearly fifteen years with six recordings under their belt. Unlike Crispell’s trio, where the majority of the material is original or, in some cases, spontaneous group compositions, Tethered Moon’s primary modus operandi has been to offer up tribute disks, which have featured writers as diverse Kurt Weill, Jimi Hendrix and Edith Piaf. But the source material has always been used as the barest sketch, the real idea being to use it as a frame of reference, supplying the thrust for collective improvisation and, to continue the comparison to Crispell, to further the concept of spontaneous composition.
But whereas Crispell’s recent work has been marked by a certain kind of thoughtful and introspective intensity, Kikuchi can be far more outgoing. That’s not to say he can’t be pensive, but his energy is more direct, more overt. And with Peacock’s compelling bass lines and Motian’s textural playing the result is music that spans gentle delicacy to something just shy of freewheeling.
With the music of Puccini’s Tosca as the starting point, one would expect a richer degree of lyricism, something more sentimental and tender; but in the hands of Tethered Moon the results are often surprising. Pieces may open up gently, but before long they move into unpredictable territory. While the trio can be elegant, more often than not it is angular and edgy. But neither is this the kind of assertive free-style playing that one expects from Cecil Taylor or, for that matter, some of Crispell’s non-ECM output; as concentrated as the playing sometimes gets, space is of vital importance. Motian, while somewhat uncharacteristically extroverted at times, is still the ethereal colourist, leaving as much to the imagination as the ideas he puts forward; Peacock examines the cracks left by Kikuchi, supplying harmonic counterpoint without ever settling into anything regular; and Kikuchi seems to almost squeeze out the notes at times, sometimes in a linear fashion, other times in close clusters.
Experiencing Tosca may be the most successful Tethered Moon project. The interplay is sharp while the images are abstract, and there is solid evidence that while they only meet intermittently, Kikuchi, Peacock and Motian share a clear collective vision.
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Personnel: Masabumi Kikuchi (piano), Gary Peacock (double-bass), Paul Motian (drums)