Each of these five albums shone when it appeared. Now assembled into a set they represent the pinnacle of the last 25 years of US jazz.
For at least a decade before Paul Motian’s death in 2011 the great drummer/composer/band-leader was the beacon for what jazz could be in its post-free, post-fusion era, without falling back on neo-bop conservatism or needing an injection of world-music influences.
To Motian the answer was elementary: play with simplicity, truth, instinct, playfulness, passion and imagination. Tell stories and weave dreams. Spurn virtuosity and prescriptive thinking. Play from the heart in the moment and all will fall into place.
It does. Across five albums of go-anywhere adventuring anchored to a repertoire of Broadway standards.
His trio with Bill Frisell (guitar) and Joe Lovano (tenor saxophone) made the first two, augmented by Charlie Haden’s mighty bass. The surprises start at track one, Volume 1 (1988), when a relatively straight-ahead reading of Liza is shattered by Frisell’s distorted guitar scorching like a meteor across the music. Somewhere Over The Rainbow has the guitarist sprinkling magic dust over every note, and Haden answers the question of What Is This Thing Called Love with a solo that is both tender and robust. My Heart Belongs To Daddy is played with affection, and lovingly deconstructed.
Recorded a year later, Volume 2’s Good Morning Heartache exemplifies how Motian’s brushes fuse with Frisell’s guitar in a Milky Way of sonic softness and infinite tiny highlights. Inevitably Moonlight Becomes You is a feature for Frisell, whose whole concept seems an evocation of the night sky. Bess, Oh Where Is My Bess drips with yearning, and All The Things You Are embodies the group’s capacity to constantly shake off over-familiarity.
Lovano plays fast tempos with the same laid-back insouciance he brings to ballads. When Lee Konitz joins the band for Volume 3 (1991) the two saxophones are like a pair of graceful yachts gliding over gently rhythmic waves, and, on I Wish I Knew, disappearing into a Turner-esque haze. But then the whole band can also swing as hard as anyone. Ever.
The final two discs have been reviewed here before. For Volume 4 (2005), Motian’s new trio with saxophonist Chris Potter and bassist Larry Grenadier was joined by Rebecca Martin (vocals) and Masabumi Kikuchi. Don’t let the lesser star-power of the cast fool you: this is extraordinary. Potter reins himself in towards introspection, Kikuchi daubs the music with an eccentric genius to match Motian’s, and Martin’s world-weary delivery makes Tea For Two startlingly moving.
Volume 5 (2008) saw Motian and Kikuchi joined by saxophonists Loren Stillman and Michael Attias and bassist Thomas Morgan. This, too excels, as Motian continued to colour air molecules with truth and beauty, and propel them into our ears.