Of all the things that make me hold my head about Jazz at Lincoln Center, the most ridiculous item showed up in an article on the first year in their new digs, Frederick Rose Hall. In a section on J@LC's organizational mindset, an unnamed staffer reportedly dissed Paul Motian as a drummer because, "He doesn't swing. Talk about missing the point! Like his former employer, Thelonious Monk, Motian shuns conventional structure and the constraints they automatically place on his instrument and music. Well, the aforementioned staffer won't like Time and Time Again
, Motian's latest collaboration with guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist Joe Lovano. But that should be a minority opinion.
The cliché says that long-term partners finish each other's sentences. Motian and his compatriots (now in their twenty-third year as a trio) not only pick up each other's creative tangents, but there are many instances where three distinct, separate, extended musical monologues are happening at the same time. You think no one is listening to anyone else, but you would be wrong. The result is a series of astonishingly complex mosaics that hang in the air like mated hawks riding the same thermal. Beautiful, to be sure, but you can't help wondering, "How the heck do they stay up there?
The Middle Eastern-flavored "In Remembrance of Things Past flashes pictures of crumbling ruins before your eyes, hinting at remnants of a once-great civilization. "Cambodia could be the soundtrack to Apocalypse Now 2, dropping you in the middle of a dark, winding river. Motian's cymbals hiss like snakes while Frisell's and Lovano's vibe covers you with layer upon layer of weirdness and uncertainty. Rodgers and Hammerstein's "This Nearly Was Mine is well nigh unrecognizable, but thanks to Lovano's desolate tenor, the protagonist's loss comes through loud and clear. Speaking of weirdness and uncertainty, the trio's take on Monk's "Light Blue has the staggering, non-conformist vibe that makes Monk an acquired (and delectable) taste.
Motian is like the Cheshire Cat: The more you look for him, the more he isn't there. It always seems like Motian is trying to establish a suggestion of percussion, rather than actually imposing his instrument on either his partners or the listener. This has a watermark effect that brings unique shading to every piece. Lovano sacrifices power for expression for the most part, serving up rough-hewn lines that are full of life, even at their most forlorn. Despite the success of his Gunther Schuller project, Streams of Expression (Blue Note, 2006), Lovano does his best work in small units. The same can be said of Frisell, who builds on his recent and brilliant trio date, Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, Paul Motian (Nonesuch, 2006). Frisell is in his element here, weaving echoing magic over trademark feedbacks that are increasingly imitated, but never duplicated.
Time And Time Again is jazz in zero gravity: Down is up, the floor is the ceiling, and perception plays tricks at almost every turn. It doesn't "swing, but that's the point!