Improvised music is often described as a conversation. Consider album titles like Conversations with Myself , Interconnection , and Duologues. Pianist Marilyn Crispell's last two recordings for ECM, Nothing Ever Was, Anyway and the quietly dramatic Amaryllis , placed her in discussion with two artists who have proven to be brilliant communicators over lengthy careers, bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Paul Motian. The discussions were often understated, at first somewhat uncharacteristically so for Crispell, whose history following the Cecil Taylor tradition in addition to her work with Anthony Braxton spoke of someone who was deeply intense and had a lot to say. With her ECM recordings she has revealed a more subtle introspective side; lyrical and occasionally romantic, she is as likely to leave sentences dangling, with Motian and Peacock stepping in to further or, sometimes, finish a thought.
Music is also considered to be an extension of artists' personalities. Crispell's latest disk for ECM, Storyteller , demonstrates how different the dynamics of a conversation can be when the participants change. While Motian is still along for the meet, Mark Helias takes Gary Peacock's place, and is less brash, a bit more tentative. Whereas Peacock jumped feet-first into a conversation, sometimes in hushed agreement, other times more boisterously confrontational, Helias is the supportive friend, always looking for ways to anchor the others, lending quiet but firm support. The result is a conversation where Crispell and Motian are active and highly interactive , with sparks sometimes flying, with Helias always present to propose a conciliatory viewpoint.
Motian, always the colourist, is quick to interject thoughts that, on the surface, appear to be non sequiturs, but are ultimately completely in context. Rarely does he ever settle into any semblance of groove, but his approach is both playful and thoughtful. Equally, Crispell can be tender and bold; sometimes within the space of the same thought, as on Motian's "Flight of the Bluejay." Helias seems to always be on the lookout for ways to bring Motian and Crispell together, by providing a strong foundation.
Crispell's approach seems to be deconstructive. She takes simple motifs, as on Helias' "Limbo," breaks them down to their essence, and then almost languidly develops them into broader miniatures, with Motian layering colour and Helias subtly anchoring.
Because Helias is a less assertive player, Storyteller may seem to lack some of the spirit of her previous two ECM recordings. But it really comes down to differences in musical personality; the album is a prime example of just how important each player is in creating a musical dynamic. Storyteller may lack the immediate spark of Amaryllis , but in its richer contrast between participants it still makes for compelling listening.
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