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Paul Motian Trio: At the Village Vanguard

Eric J. Iannelli By

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Never one to regard form over content, I was nevertheless struck at once by the sheer beauty of the packaging of this reissue: a heavy, ribbed cardboard shell with an arced slot for the disc on one side, a thinner slip for the original liner notes on the other. It gives it the feeling of an event, rather than the more steady and prosaic process of the Winter & Winter label's remastered resurrection of Motian's work on JMT.

The extended (and slightly more poetic) title for this June, 1995 Village Vanguard session is taken from the Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger standard "You Took the Words Right Out of My Heart," which is in keeping with the string of longing, elegiac Motian-led albums like It Should Have Been a Long Time Ago and the more recent I Have the Room Above Her. But the bulk of the set is far from somber, with Frisell giving ample voice to his inner Hendrix on tracks like "Abacus" and "The Owl of Cranston," and the trio elsewhere spinning off into noisy abstraction as on "The Sunflower."

Although the dynamic of this trio had been honed over more than a decade by the time of this recording, all three musicians have a distinct individual presence. This is not necessarily a bad thing, surely, because it could be said of some of the most outstanding jazz outfits of all time—this being one of them. But there are infrequent moments on You Took the Words where a "supergroup" quality arises. I wouldn't go so far as to call it ego or upstaging, but it is the sound of three established bandleaders and singular musicians straddling the fence between front- and sideman.

Given Motian's normally self-effacing style and his unifying role on this outing, this least applies to him; and repeated listens suggest that it's actually Frisell who tends to come across as too strong-willed and indulgent (particularly when he's trying out the buttons on his synthesizer). On the title track, for example, even though the guitarist initially echoes the melody laid out by Lovano, he gives the impression that he wants his to be the primary instrument. In the intimate context of a trio, this kind of minor power play, whether deliberate or accidental, naturally has a much greater effect on the music than usual.

"Folk Song for Rosie" stands in stark contrast to this and is more in line with mood suggested by the title. Here Lovano sets out a clear motif like a straightforward recounting of a romance, while the pings and delay of Frisell's guitar suggest the memories, doubts, and regrets that surface in the speaker's mind. Motian, far more preoccupied with highlighting and shading, barely whispers. It's an exquisite track. Likewise with the fourteen-minute "Yahllah," on which the group achieves a state of pure balance and cohesion amid tireless sonic exploration. Along with the closing "Circle Dance," they make this the event that the packaging suggests.

Track Listing: You Took the Words Right Out of My Heart; Abacus; Folk Song for Rosie; The Owl of Cranston; Miles to Wrentham; Yahllah; The Sunflower; Circle Dance.

Personnel: Joe Lovano: tenor saxophone; Bill Frisell: guitar, guitar synthesizer; Paul Motian: drums.

Title: At the Village Vanguard | Year Released: 2005 | Record Label: Winter & Winter

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