February 18, 2005

Motian's trio builds Room with innovation, not rust

Paul Motian, Bill Frisell, and Joe Lovano are three of the most intriguingly adventurous players on today's jazz scene. All of them have crafted careers based on their versatility, moving between projects that span from artful swing to avant-garde to electric music. Each man is revered in his own right, but their collaborative trio is a special entity.

The trio recorded consistently in the late '80s and early '90s, producing a number of stellar albums dedicated to the music of Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, and Broadway, but it has effectively ceased being a touring group, save for an annual two-week long residency at the Village Vanguard in New York City. As it exists now, the trio is a place of reunion for great musical minds and old friends, a setting that continues to elicit empathic and inspired performances from each musician.

I Have The Room Above Her is the trio's first album since 1998, and if anything, this hiatus has produced wisdom rather than rust. The music presented here is texturally complex and immaculately crafted, creating a symbiotic group interplay that can be both comfortably beautiful and starkly demanding for the listener. The individual compositions on the album are subjected to a loving deconstruction by the trio, as melodies are used not as points of departure but as sites of exploration and expression. This exquisite ability to honor a composition even as it is being dismantled is only possible because each player in the trio has such a distinct and assured musicianship. As in all great jazz bands, the Motian, Frisell, Lovano trio enhances each member's identity, letting individuality rather than conformity spark their collective empathy.

Playing at the front of this collective group sound are the guitarist Bill Frisell and the tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, who collaborate to bring the music an ethereal lyricism. The two players weave in and out of each other's improvisations, echo each other's melodies, and produce a texture of powerful meditation. Throughout the album their interplay is stunning, but on the title track, a ballad written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, it ascends to an even more delicate level of precision. Lovano swoons through the melody before handing it off to Frisell, who brings out new harmonic possibilities from within the song. Lovano then rejoins Frisell, and the two delve even deeper into the composition, crafting a new, and equally stirring, ballad out of the flesh of the original.

Frisell and Lovano add tremendous textural creativity and profound lyricism to I Have The Room Above Her, but the real revelation here is the drumming of Paul Motian. Motian has an almost subversive presence on the album, pushing against the grain of the music to bring out its full grandeur. Frisell and Lovano often play a step behind the beat, letting the generosity of their phrasings linger in our ears. Motian, in contrast, is three steps ahead of the beat, driving the music with rapidly tapping cymbals and pounding bass drum figures.

In the context of the album, this seemingly incongruous style is both jarring and beautiful. Motian's playing seems impatient—imploring the two lyrical balladeers to quit their romantic swooning and keep his beat—but it is just as sensitive as that of Frisell and Lovano. The music on I Have The Room Above Her might be almost as elegant and lyrical without Motian's challenging sensitivity, but it wouldn't be half as interesting. He has created a music that rhythmically contradicts itself, forcing us to listen deeply and carefully just as we are about to be lulled by the romantic elegance of these sirens' songs.