Review: Paul Motian Old and New Masters ECM Box Set

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Conception Vessel, the title of Paul Motian’s debut album for ECM, is perhaps the perfect term to describe the prolific drummer and composer.   From his earliest work in Bill Evans’ trio, it was clear he had a unique approach to drumming.  Motian also extended his unique aesthetic to his large body of tuneful, elegant and often deceptively complex compositions.  Motian, in short, was his own “concept vessel,” and an artist whose impact was, is, and will continue to be felt for generations.  ECM’s latest in its “Old and New Masters” series, released on April 23, 2013, is a box set that contains the six solo albums that Motian recorded for the label between 1972 and 1984.  The set gives the listener a large look into Motian’s compositional and drumming concepts and the chance to enjoy his excellent groups, which were comprised of many of the top jazz players of the last few decades.

I was luckily able to pick up a near mint LP copy of Conception Vessel at a local antique store for $4 a few months back.  With a variety of personnel configurations, the album exhibits a diversity of timbres, textures and moods.  Upon putting it on the felt I was, and continue to be, immediately struck with Sam Brown’s acoustic guitar work, which is the focal point for much of the album.  The album opens with “Georgian Bay,” a trio piece for Brown, bassist Charlie Haden and Motian, which features a lot of strumming and arpeggiating from Brown, in a pseudo-classical guitar manner.  The piece is more atmospheric and mood setting than it is something with a lot of forward motion.  “Ch’i Energie” is a short solo percussion piece, with Motian employing a full arsenal of his set, bells, shakers and cymbals.  “Rebica” is another trio piece with Brown – this time on electric, Haden and Motian.  The title track is a duo with Keith Jarrett and Motian, with Jarrett playing in a searching fashion over Motian’s trademark active out-of-time drumming.  “American Indian: Song of Sitting Bull” is another duet for Jarrett and Motian, with Jarrett on flute instead of piano.  The album closes with “Inspiration from a Vietnamese Lullaby,” a quartet comprised of Becky Friend on flute, Leroy Jenkins on violin, Haden and Motian.   The bassist and drummer stoke the fire behind Friend and Jenkins’ interweaving, contrapuntal and frenetic solos, which are one of the album’s highlights.

Of the six albums included in this set I am hearing the middle four (Tribute, Dance, Le Voyage, and Psalm) for the first time, which I find surprising given that I own about a dozen Motian solo albums, and perhaps a dozen or more on which he is a sideman.

Tribute, recorded in 1974, keeps Brown and Haden from Conception Vessel, and adds saxophonist Carlos Ward and guitarist Paul Metzke.  “Victoria” opens things up, and is reminiscent of the Brown/Haden/Motian cuts from Conception Vessel, that is until Ward’s full bodied alto enters, adding a more melodic voice to the group. (Ward also appears on the other quasi-ballad, “Sod House.”)  Things change significantly with the rocking quartet track “Tuesday Ends Saturday,” which features both guitarists.  Tribute contains the only non-Motian compositions on the six discs: Ornette’s “War Orphan” (another two guitar, bass, drums quartet) and Haden’s “Song for Che.”

Dance and Le Voyage, recorded in 1977 and 1979 respectively, are trio dates, both of which feature Charles Brackeen on soprano and tenor.  David Izenzon is the bassist on the former, while J.F. Jenny-Clark occupies that chair on the latter.  The music on both albums is sparse, atmospheric, and spacious.  It provides plenty of room for Brackeen to stretch out.  Brackeen’s soprano tone is a bit on the bright side, which may turn some listeners off, but his melodic inventiveness should appeal to everyone.  Both albums are more or less features for Brackeen, who over the course of both discs does just about everything: sing, wail, honk, or weave high register gossamer soprano lines.  While some of the music on Dance can be quiet and pretty, “Prelude” is straight up agitated and at times manic.  Furious arco work from Izenzon and forceful drumming under-gird Brackeen, whose wild tenor at times recalls Albert Ayler.  The oft-recorded title track, which has Brackeen on soprano, is in a similar vein.  Le Voyage’s title track closes that album, and it’s one of the highlights from both discs.  The bulk of the eleven minutes features Brackeen blowing over Jenny-Clark and Motian’s polyrhythmic support.  Where Motian is more active – especially on cymbals, Jenny-Clark picks his spots, interjecting short figures in between the spaces left by Motian and Brackeen.  The saxophonist isn’t always the sole focus on these albums, as Jenny-Clark and Motian have plenty of solo opportunities – Jenny-Clark’s arco solo to open “Cabala/Drum Music” is dark and brooding, while Motian is the featured soloist on the track.  Dance and Le Voyage are both excellent albums, standing apart from the numerous sax/bass/drums trio format albums and groups.

Psalm, a quintet date from 1981 featuring Joe Lovano and Billy Drewes on saxophone, Bill Frisell on guitar and Ed Schuller on bass, is another excellent offering, which showcases Motian’s ethereal and more frenetic sides.  The disc opens with the gorgeous title track, a peaceful work, which is laced with reverb laden washes from Frisell, long arco notes from Schuller, and Motian’s bells and chimes.  The next cut, “White Magic,” is somewhat of a surprise, in that a driving rock back beat is perhaps the last thing one would expect Motian to lay down.  Motian’s work is the foundation for raucous simultaneous saxophone solos and a slightly less aggressive Frisell, who adds some fuzz to his tone.  “Fantasm” is another more quiet work that features sparse soloing from Schuller and Frisell for the first two-thirds of the album.  The rest of the tune belongs to the saxophonists, whose careful work and interplay alternates between improvisation and composed lines.  Being a saxophonist and huge Lovano fan, I would have liked to have heard more solos from each saxophonist.  The saxophones do get plenty of room however on “Second Hand,” on which they play off each other.  Psalm is less about letting each soloist go off every tune, than it is about total group sound and cohesion.  Motian used Frisell’s guitar as Psalm’s sonic glue, and he is often front and center (“Etude” is a solo Frisell feature).  The album closes with “Yahllah,” another beautiful atmospheric piece.  I will return to Psalm again and again.

My favorite Motian led group is his seminal trio with Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell, and their ECM album I Have the Room Above Her is one of my “desert island” discs.  The trio’s excellent It Should Have Happened A Long Time Ago, recorded in 1984, is the set’s final disc.  The group here, while in good form, doesn’t quite show the exceptionally high level of telepathic integration as they did later on, although this is understandable given this album was recorded early in the group’s existence  That being said, they were still tighter in 1984 than many groups ever become, and this is still a very good record.  The title track is perhaps one of Motian’s most tuneful and memorable compositions, and the trio’s performance of it is as good as anything they’ve done.  Like Psalm, this has plenty of quiet and introspective moments, such as the Frisell solo feature “Introduction.”  “India” is another highlight, with nicely understated solos from Lovano and Frisell.  Motian augments his kit with a variety of gongs and bells, to great effect.  Perhaps the only thing not to like on this album is Frisell’s synth sound, which sounds a little dated, but this is a minor quibble, as Frisell uses it sparingly.

Something that should not be overlooked with this box set is pianist Ethan Iverson’s substantial liner notes.  Whereas many reissue box sets skimp on liner notes (for example, I love the reissues that Black Saint/Soul Note are doing, but the omission of the original liner notes is a drawback), ECM included a near 50 page booklet.  The booklet contains each album’s original cover art, personnel and recording information, and over a dozen photographs.  Iverson’s excellent essay includes important background and contextual information on each album, as well as numerous quotes from ECM head Manfred Eischer and the musicians.  And is always the case with ECM albums, the sound quality and production value is excellent.

This set is essential for any Paul Motian fan who does not already own all of these albums, and is close to essential for any hard core jazz fan.  For the casual fan, or for someone who isn’t really familiar with Motian’s work, this set would be the perfect place to start, as it documents much of Motian’s best work as a band leader, performer and composer.  In addition, it is also a great showcase for several of his band mates – such as Brackeen and Brown  – who deserve more acknowledgement for their work.  This edition of ECM’s Old and New Masters Series is easily one of the best reissues thus far of 2013, and it’s release is great recognition of the importance and impact of one of jazz’s most creative and unique musicians.

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