Paul Motian – ECM Old and New Masters (6CD ‘white box’ reissue)

PaulMotianAlthough there are no end of worthwhile reissue packages in the racks these days, some—including this collection of works by the late drummer, composer and bandleader Paul Motian—are more essential than others.

Paul Motian includes Motian’s first six albums for the ECM labelConception Vessel (1972), Tribute (1974), Dance (1977), Le Voyage (1979), Psalm (1981), and It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago (1984).

These three chronological pairs of albums present distinct stages of Motian’s evolution as a band leader: In his liner notes, Bad Plus’ pianist Ethan Iverson describes Conception Vessel and Tribute as: “a small-scale annex of Charlie Haden’s large-scale Liberation Music Orchestra”; Dance and Le Voyage are trio sessions featuring saxophonist Charles Brackeen; Psalm, dominated by the then radically new tonalities of Bill Frisell’s guitar, paved the way for both the mid-80s Motian quintet which would record so superbly for Soul Note, and its offshoot, the peerless trio of Motian, Frisell, and saxophonist Joe Lovano, which was first recorded for It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago.

With the exception of two pieces on Tribute (Ornette Coleman’s “War Orphans”, and Charlie Haden’s “Song for Ché”, both of which featured on the Liberation Music Orchestra’s Impulse! debut, on which Motian played), all of the compositions on these six albums are by Motian.

Stylistically, the drummer is probably best understood in the rhythmically-liberated lineage of Ornette Coleman associates Ed Blackwell and Charles Moffett; but for idiosyncrasy he’s matched by precious few. Tony Oxley, perhaps; but where Oxley was a terrific foil for Cecil Taylor, Motian made his name playing with Bill Evans and Paul Bley, both far more subtle stylists. Witness the way Motian’s percussion gets under the skin of “War Orphans”, agitating the fluid thrum with which the group animates the slippery languor of Coleman’s melody. Also on Tribute, Motian’s “Sod House” is an even more sensitive and sensuous engagement with Coleman as muse. With Charlie Haden’s bass as the track’s pliant spine, Motian adds colour with bells, shakers and other hand-held percussion.

As Iverson notes, recourse to percussion beyond the standard kit is something that Motian would eventually “phase out of his vocabulary”. Although he favours a looser, rawer and more responsive conception, Motian can play emphatic time when the mood suits. He backs “Kalypso” (from Dance) in march time, swings on “Folk Song for Rosie” (Le Voyage) and “The Year of the Dragon” (It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago), and drives “White Magic” (Psalm) with a solid backbeat.

But those are exceptions: Motian is more remarkable for the eccentric quiddity and subtle coloration of his improv skills. The stylistic openness of his earlier works throws up numerous delights, including, famously, a duet with Keith Jarrett on “Conception Vessel” (contemporaneous with Motian’s stint in Jarrett’s 70s ‘American Quartet’), which is without parallel in either artist’s catalogue.

The guitarist Sam Brown (Conception Vessel and Tribute), the saxophonists Carlos Ward (Tribute) and Charles Brackeen (Tribute and Dance), and the double bassist J.F. Jenny-Clark (Dance) are all wonderful stylists I’ve not heard to better advantage elsewhere: Brown plays outside style, with both the succinctness of a sessioneer and a true improvisors fluidity of conception; Brackeen is a more lyrical counterpart to the more anguished-sounding Dewey Redman; and Jenny-Clark, who played often with Don Cherry in the 60s (cf. Cherry’s Symphony For Improvisers), manages to lift the Motian/Brackeen trio to a higher level on Le Voyage than they attain with the remarkable David Izenzon (a young veteran of landmark Bill Evans and Ornette Coleman trios) on Dance.

The later albums, which feature Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell, are the crucible of the drummer’s mature style, for which the then remarkable sound of Bill Frisell seems to have been a vital catalyst. “Etude” (from Psalm) and “Introduction” (It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago) are both Motian originals performed solo by Bill Frisell, and the whole of Psalm—which, as Iverson says, is:the most ‘produced album’ in Motian’s discography”—anticipates Frisell’s own early recordings as a bandleader, such as Lookout for Hope (1988, also ECM). Psalm‘s title track exploits the guitarist’s reverb and delay techniques to full effect, while “Mandevile” is pure Frisellian folklore Americana, set to a rumba rhythm.

Motian was evidently much taken with the new tonal potentialities of Frisell’s guitar synth, but the rapport that they forged with saxophonist Joe Lovano on It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago, and their remarkable synergy, was yet more important. Lovano is perhaps even more in tune with Motian than Frisell, as no matter how far they stretch compositional form they both keep faith with Bop’s foundational emphasis on harmonic structure and melody.

Paul Motian encapsulates a ground-breaking and genre-defying body of work.

Of other available collections: The Complete Remastered Recordings on Black Saint and Soul Note has six albums recorded between 1983 and 1992 – the next phase of Motian’s output. It contains much exceptional music, albeit of less stylistic variety or conceptual innovation. And the five On Broadway titles recorded in the decade 1988 to 2008 (the first three by the Motian/Lovano/Frisell trio) have been corralled by Winter & Winter, presenting Motian in all the refinement of his maturity. But by bringing together a variegated series of recordings which jointly encapsulate Motian’s genius at the point of its inception, the present ECM selection is essential in ways that few other collections can match.

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