The anticipation of seeing and hearing this extraordinary trio perform live bordered on overwhelming. With everyone's expectations high, the Vanguard sold out again for a fourth consecutive night (with still two more nights to go in this series). A pre-dominantly male, 20-something crowd shuffled their way into the historic and cozy room, strewn with classic jazz pics adorning all the walls.
It was just a matter of seconds before the audience would find out who was going to get in the first note, or perhaps the first beat. Maybe the trio would collectively hit the intro on their first tune? Tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, percussionist Paul Motian, and guitarist Bill Frisell quickly re-acquainted themselves to the stage, making minor adjustments with smiles that reaffirmed what a very special evening we were all in for. And then, without introduction - Boom! Paul Motian was off and running. Not too far behind, Lovano then Frisell joined in for the head of Thelonius Monk's "Epistrophy". Like three heavenly bodies rotating around one another, their symbiotic relationship proves that this combination vastly exceeds the sum of its parts. Lovano and Frisell were not only schoolmates at Berklee in Boston, but are now celebrating their 20th anniversary as Paul Motian bandmates. Offering some emphatic and deep tenor blows, Lovano invited Motian, who had been "soloing" from the git go, for some give-and-take trading of fours. Ear piercing whistles and thunderous claps greeted the smooth record-date-like closing of this Monk staple. Not only was the Motian-Lovano-Frisell trio all smiles at that point, but the crowd likewise responded with satisfied grins.
Then Lovano decided to take the pace down a notch. The Herzog/Holiday standard "Don't Explain" wound up being the perfect vehicle to show off Lovano's breathier strengths on his instrument of choice, the tenor sax (and he brought none other). With only a few solid breaths, Lovano proved that he is truly one of the greatest living interpreters of the ballad. Motian complemented the horn on brushes and Frisell subtly echoed Lovano's sentiments at each breath. The lyrics of the haunting melody seeped in and out of range from Lovano's solo to Frisell's. Though two so-called "standards" opened the set, this threesome valiantly turned them into their own.
Without pause, and as if not to rely on the standard repertoire, Paul Motian headed straight into his original, "Owl of Cranston". Check out his 1983 Soul Note recording The Story of Maryam if you're not already familiar with this landscape-oriented piece. Having just turned 70, Motian's playing shows no signs of cliche or even consistency for that matter, which is by far anything but a bad thing. The ECM-like ending placed in perspective the fact that both Motian and Frisell have played significant roles in the history of that groundbreaking label. Motian's first five recordings as a leader were actually made for ECM, starting with his 1972 recording debut as a leader, Conception Vessel. His fifth session for the label (Psalm, 1981), featured both his two newest band mate additions at the time, Lovano and Frisell.
Another Motian original followed: "Mode VI", originally from Paul Motian's 1991 recording, Live in Tokyo, which featured this exact trio. For the introduction, Frisell mustered up some James Blood Ulmer-inspired sounds in conjunction with Lovano's low register tenor sax blasts. "When You Wish Upon A Star" chirped out from under Frisell's fingers a la Procol Harum's Robin Trower, Frank Marino (of Mahagony Rush), or better yet, the master himself - Jimi Hendrix. Even with such glimpses into his obvious influences, Frisell continues to make labels such as "Jazz" superfluous with a sound that is immediately recognized as his own. In the midst of trading blows with Lovano, Frisell timed one note so perfectly, catching Lovano basically off guard, that the tenor man could only step back from his mic and wait for his next entrance back in. It seemed as if he acknowledged that the last round went decisively to Frisell. It was all in fun - yet another reminder that this was music of the moment, created on the spot. Both features delighted the musicians and, of course, the fortunate ears taken along for the ride in the audience.
With a trip back to the Monk repertoire, Lovano showed off his Charlie Rouse roots during Monk's "Pannonica". Rouse, who passed away in '88 (six years after his longtime employer of over ten years), certainly was present in spirit somewhere within those Vanguard walls, and Lovano tipped his hat in style. Can you imagine Lovano having played with Monk? Now, there'd be a match made in heaven!
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