At the same time Marilyn Crispell's music is flowing and lyrical, it's also wrapped in mystery and darkness. That combination served the pianist well on her two recent ECM trio records, Amaryllis (2001) and Nothing Ever Was, Anyway (1997), alongside bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Paul Motian. Mark Helias steps in as bassist this time around, but the overall flavor of the music is much the same.
What leaps out right awayand persists through the course of the recordis the way Crispell blurs the edges of time and melody. She pauses gently when you expect her to leap, she flows right on through bar lines without a second of hesitation, and she often takes a painstaking amount of time getting to the point of resolution. But her playing is precise nonetheless. Helias's "Harmonic Line" is a rather introverted piece with a baroque melody and classical bent, and it serves as good as any to illustrate how the pianist holds the music together without tucking in too many of its edges. (Helias also takes the opportunity to step forward on bass. His playing feels a bit more grounded than Peacock's oblique counterpoint, but the communication with the other two players remains at a high level.)
Paul Motian has always preferred to color rhythms rather than enforce them, and he's at his most abstract in this setting. He's responsible for six of eleven compositions, including the naive, jumpy "Flight of the Bluejay" and the darkly enigmatic title track. On "Cosmology 2," each player seems to be occupying a different space, concerned more with drifting along than reaching concensus, gradually moving into relative overlap as Crispell solos, and even swinging a bit down the road.
The most spacious and expansive playing comes in the form of Crispell's "So Far, So Near," where Mark Helias rises to the upper register of the bass and spends a couple of minutes in Braxtonian abstraction before handing the baton to Crispell and emerging as a team player. The piece is so viscous and langorous that the trio almost comes to a standstill several times. (How long can you pedal a phrase?) It's indicative of the primary weakness of Storyteller, which is a degree of introversion that effectively subtracts from dynamics and momentum. Sure, the two earlier trio records were also quite self-conscious, but they packed more oomph than this one.
Still, that's a very long yardstick to measure any music, and patient listeners will find this music magnetic and deep. There are many messages tied up in Storyteller.
Track Listing: 1. Wild Rose (4:10)
2. Flight of the Bluejay (4:37)
3. The Storyteller (6:05)
4. Alone (4:44)
5. Harmonic Line (5:48)
6. Cosmology 2 (5:35)
7. Limbo (6:51)
8. Play (5:10)
9. The Sunflower (3:59)
10. Cosmology 1 (3:58)
11. So Far, So Near (9:27)
Personnel: Marilyn Crispell: piano; Mark Helias: bass; Paul Motian: drums.