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Nothing in modern music has managed to sound quite like the trio drummer Paul Motian led with guitarist Bill Frisell and tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano for some 30 years. Little within the deep and brilliant catalogs of Lovano or Frisell — or of Motian himself, for that matter — embodies that trio’s oddly entrancing logic, its wondrously disorienting yet sturdily anchored feeling. At least, not for me.Motian was both a peaceful presence and a locus of swirling power. A few cymbal strikes were all he needed to indicate velocity and flow. He distilled jazz’s pulses into pithy implication through personalized rhythmic phrases. By the time of his death, at 80, in 2011, he was both eminence and enigma. Everyone wanted to play with him. No one played like him.At a memorial concert for Motian that gathered some three-dozen musicians at Manhattan’s Symphony Space, Lovano and Frisell, who organized the event, provided its emotional highlight: a duet version of “It Should Have Happened a Long Time Ago,” the folksy yet mysterious Motian composition that served as title track for the trio’s 1985 debut album.
Motian had first gained notoriety more than two decades before that album, in a very different trio led by pianist Bill Evans, with, at its peak, bassist Scott LaFaro. “It wasn’t a piano and rhythm section,” Motian once told me. “It was three playing as one.” Indeed, 1961’s Sunday at the Village Vanguard is an enduring classic largely for that reason. (Motian, however, was partial to that trio’s 1959 Portrait in Jazz.) Important as it was, Motian’s work with Evans gave little indication of where his playing was headed. His style transformed quickly into something far more abstract — free, for the most part, of jazz’s technical conventions and often punctuated with elongated silences — urged on especially through work with two other pianists, Paul Bley and Keith Jarrett. (Motian joined Jarrett’s group in 1967, and stayed with him for nearly a decade.)Motian didn’t record as a leader until his forties. Conception Vessel (1973) announced the melodic charms and peculiar forms of his own compositions. By 1984, he’d distilled the trio with Lovano and Frisell from his working quintet. This piano-free group upended notions about the trio format, about song forms and improvisation in general. Their music was ephemeral, something like smoke from a distant and slow-burning fire, always just out of view. “That band taught me what it means to play ideas,” Lovano said from the stage at that memorial concert. It also taught me how to hear them.And then there’s the power of a trio to ignite fires that would rage wildly out of controlwere it not for the ingenuity of musicians to shape it into something beautiful. One current example is Harriet Tubman, the plugged-in power trio of guitarist Brandon Ross, bassist Melvin Gibbs and drummer J.T. Lewis. I listen to them live and on recordings whenever I can; I urge you to do the same. Yet I’m getting to a different and no less powerful trio, one I didn’t hear until decades after the fact. Fierce but often funny, wild-eyed yet thoroughly organized, Sam Rivers blazed a singular trail through jazz for more than a half-century. Playing tenor and soprano saxophones, or flute, he sounded edgy, or warm, or both simultaneously, exuding authority yet never settling into anything conventional. His piano playing was equally distinctive and unbound. As bandleader or sideman, Rivers, who died in 2011 at age 88, suggested the fullest integration of compositional rigor and uninhibited exploration.
Following his arrival in New York to play with Miles Davis in 1964, Rivers moved quickly to the foreground of a creative movement anchored in bebop’s revolution and bent on stretching the boundaries of form, style and instrumentation. At Studio Rivbea, the Downtown Manhattan space he and his wife, Beatrice, ran during the heyday of the loft jazz scene, his presence was commanding: A 1978 profile in Downbeat magazine bore the headline “Warlord of the Lofts.”Throughout the 1970s, Rivers developed ideas to which he’d devote the rest of his career: remarkably creative big-band music, and an approach to small ensembles, especially trios, that was no less expansive and just as rich with intricately shifting parts. Beginning with his 1965 Blue Note debut, Fuchsia Swing Song, Rivers made many fine studio recordings. Yet his force was best beheld through live performances —especially during the 1970s, and most notably leading his most memorable trio, with bassist Dave Holland and drummer Barry Altschul. That group made only two relatively obscure recordings. “If one wasn’t able to catch them in person, one might as well have hardly heard them at all,” writer Clifford Allen states in a liner note to Ricochet, which documents the trio at San Francisco’s Keystone Korner club in 1978 and was released on NoBusiness Records last year.Ricochet is the third and most satisfying installment so far of The Sam Rivers Archive, a planned six-volume series documenting his small-group performances. Once complete, a five-LP boxed set will gather the best selections from all six releases according to writer Ed Hazell, who sorted through more than 50 storage bins of material while co-producing this series. Emanation, the first in the series, documented Rivers in 1971, fresh off an important stint in pianist Cecil Taylor’s quartet during which he had begun to solo at greater length and with heightened intensity. Leading a trio with bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Norman Connors at Boston’s Jazz Workshop, Rivers was establishing an approach to extended small-group performances, without breaks, during which, as Hazell put it, “the music organized itself as it was played.”
That approach is fully realized on Ricochet. By 1978, Rivers had established a sturdy rapport with Holland and Altschul spanning several projects, including, along with reedist Anthony Braxton, Holland’s 1973 classic, Conference of the Birds. The 52 minutes and 14 seconds of continuous music on Ricochet begins like a fast-paced film already in progress. Rivers, on soprano saxophone, is clearly in the foreground, with Holland and Altschul building fast-paced rhythms that shift and shimmy in response to his every utterance. Rivers soon moves to the piano, playing with delicacy but also abandon. A calm suggests a pause that never arrives. Holland moves to cello. Rivers picks up his tenor saxophone, growing gradually more animated, his overtones sometimes choked with fury. Finally, near the end, with Rivers playing flute and Holland back on bass, a melody takes shape —bluesy, accessible and clearly stated — against a swinging rhythm, until the action slows into what feels like one collective exhale.In 2007, this group reconvened for a concert at Columbia University’s Miller Theater, which was documented on Reunion: Live in New York. The three hadn’t performed together in 25 years, yet they sounded as if they had simply picked up where they left off and turned a page.Ricochet tells us more about how that story began.
Jen Shyu, Zero Grasses: Ritual for the Losses (Pi)
As a vocalist singing in 10 languages, a composer straddling genres and styles, a musician playing instruments whose histories span continents and centuries, and as a dancer and writer of compelling grace and power, Jen Shyu transforms wisdom from masters and stories gathered from communities around the world into original expressions. On this new release, which features some of the most creative musicians on today’s scene (trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, violist Mat Maneri, bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Dan Weiss), Shyu considerslove and loss in the wake of her father’s death and in the midst of a global pandemic.