Gary Peacock / Paul Bley / Paul Motian at Birdland

Budd Kopman By

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Gary Peacock / Paul Bley / Paul Motian at Birdland
New York, NY
August 23, 2007

Music exists only in time. Yes, it can be recorded, but listening to the recording again demands time. The basic premise of jazz as in-the-moment improvisation only increases awareness of the music's ephemeral nature, which is compounded again when the jazz performers bring just themselves and not tunes, written or unwritten, to the gig.

Such was the case as three masters—bassist Gary Peacock, pianist Paul Bley and drummer Paul Motian—gathered at Birdland for a stand August 22-25. On this Thursday night, the show was sold out, with anticipation and expectations filling the air, since each man is in his seventies and brings a reputation built on a fifty-year career in jazz.

The musicians know each other well, having performed and recorded in different pairings and all together many times over the years. However, this particular performance on this particular night was of singular import. What was going to happen? How much did we even have a right to expect from these players so late in their careers?

There's always a risk involved when musicians get together without any pre-planned agenda. Someone might be out of sorts, or the delicate but essential collaborative ESP might not be working and the players just do not click. However, those who enjoy experiencing the unknown revel in the possibilities of what might be and are willing to pay the price of the occasional misstep—a trade-off that necessarily goes with the territory.

Peacock had some trouble with his amp at the beginning of the set, which only exacerbated what felt like a slow start. Although the instrumentation looked like a piano trio, the nominal leader was Peacock, and his equipment issues seemed to upset what was an already delicate balance. The slightly disorganized feeling was mostly a shared sense of difficulty getting started and into gear.

The sense of the trio as an entity was further disturbed, at least early on, by the fact that Peacock, Bley and Motian were not really playing together but attempting independently to respond in real time to each other as three soloists. Conventional solos, during which one player takes the lead while the others support him, simply did not happen. Rather, only one member played as the other two listened, waiting for an appropriate moment to reenter.

Most of the time, the action revolved around Bley and Peacock sparring and responding to each other with Motian commenting on and attempting to push the proceedings in one direction or another. The resulting music acquired a gossamer quality that had the audience holding its collective breath. The initial tension soon became delicious as the thrusts and parries shot back and forth.

The truly magical moments occurred, however, when the three independent musical lines did mesh, mostly at the insistence of Motian, who would set up an extremely delicate yet distinct pulse serving as a framework for Peacock and Bley. When this convergence happened, the effect on the audience was instantaneous and apparent.

One such extended moment involved an oblique, much refracted reference by Bley to "Sweet And Lovely." A recognizable tune implies a rhythmic and harmonic pattern, which Peacock and Motian immediately picked up on. Several minutes followed with the group taking apart the tune and clearly having fun, making this extended, unplanned moment alone worth the price of admission.

Peacock, Bley and Motian finished the set, playing at a very high level of artistry with the audience responding strongly to each improvisation as it took on life and found its own way to come to an end. A risky business but with a pay-off best described by two words: magical and marvelous.


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