One sax, one guitar, one set of drums. Who could imagine that such a spare combination could sound so rich, so complete? Drummer Paul Motian's collaboration with guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist Joe Lovano is well into its third decade together but, instead of settling into comfortable predictability, Time and Time Again finds the trio continuing to evolve.
The trio's artistic success is all the more uncanny for its avoidance of conventional role playing. Unlike other bass-less trios, where everyone attempts to assume some aspect of the missing instrument's role, this group carves out its own approach where drums are more often a color than a pulse, saxophone as much texture as linear melodism, and the guitar a veritable orchestra (thanks to Frisell's expansive style and seamless integration of looping technology).
That's not to say there isn't time, melody and movement. "Cambodia" unfolds slowly, Motian's cymbals rustling beneath Frisell's real-time layering of spacious pattern and spare lyricism. When Lovano enters at the half-way mark, he circles around Frisell, never meeting in unison but, instead, building an ethereally compelling soundscape.
Improvisation is fundamental, but in a restrained way that emphasizes the sketch-like nature of Motian's writing. Still, pieces like "Whirlpool" have a basis in change, although when Frisell leads into a solo Lovano creates an underscore that's low and visceral rather than suggestive of harmonic movement. The title track has a clear theme and group interaction that's all the lovelier for its near-whisper dynamic.
Motian clearly writes to this trio's strengths. Frisell may speak a more distinct jazz language here than on many of his own projects, but there's a distinctly Americana vibe to "K.T.," while Motian encourages Lovano to subsume his potent delivery in a more nuanced fashion.
Seemingly at odds with the orbital nature of Frisell and Lovano, and more the aural equivalent of an impressionist painter, the rhythm of Motian's occasional displays of greater strength and propulsion only become clear when viewed from a distance.
Between its 1985 ECM debut (It Should Have Happened Long Ago) and 2005 return to the label (I Have the Room Above Her) Motian's trio recorded a number of records for Winter&Winter. As strong as those intervening records are, this trio's rarified and atmospheric approach is ultimately best-suited to the ECM aesthetic. Time and Time Again's implicit nature works because it insists the listener become an active participant in the ongoing process of discovery.
Personnel: Paul Motian: drums; Bill Frisell: guitar; Joe Lovano: tenor saxophone.