At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)
Paul Motian has already surfaced twice in the 129 Essential Albums List, and he'll turn up again. This is the album that I really consider as his, featuring one of the greatest working bands I've had the privilege to experience in a room.
For the most part, that room was the Village Vanguard, where Motian, saxophonist Joe Lovano and guitarist Bill Frisell were a beloved fixture for something like 30 years. After Motian decided to stop touring, around 2003, he became even more of a Vanguard staple, almost a mascot. And the Motian-Frisell-Lovano trio was his flagship group, the one that best crystallized his gift for melodic abstraction and plasticized rhythm.
I must have seen the trio at the Vanguard a dozen times over the years. One set that stands out happened in 2004, as the Bush-era Republican National Convention was in town — with Professor Irwin Corey, a favorite of the Vanguard owner Lorraine Gordon, serving as a politically subversive intermission act. Reviewing that gig for the Village Voice, I wrote:
Lovano’s tenor saxophone cooed and cried on “Don’t Explain,” nudged along by soft Frisell guitar arpeggios. They played in chorus at the start and finish of Motian’s compositions, which have the pliant, patient certainty of folk songs. In between were innumerable fine details: Frisell’s spontaneous architecture of sampled zips and pings, the sizzle of rivets on Motian’s cymbal at a pregnant pause.
The following spring, ECM released I Have the Room Above Her, a sublime album that capitalizes on the individual strengths of each musician, and the indefinable strength they managed as a unit. This album stands, for me, as one of the ensemble's great statements. I wrote about it for JazzTimes, and I'm enclosing the full review below; my thoughts on the matter haven't changed much, except for the fact that I am all the more convinced of its timeless appeal.
It’s been 20 years since drummer Paul Motian, guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist Joe Lovano recorded It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago, the ECM album that kicked off their trio collaboration. In the interim, the ensemble has worked together more or less steadily: playing to packed Village Vanguard crowds, touring Europe and recording a couple of gems for Winter & Winter/JMT. Still, this return to ECM feels like a major milestone as well as a reprisal.
The reason, quite simply, is the music. Motian and his younger cohorts have mastered the art of an avant-gardism that’s abstract but never shapeless, and thoroughly steeped in melodic yearning. Lovano’s tenor is alternately pleading, plaintive or exalting; Frisell employs his guitar as lead voice, harmonic glue and atmospheric scrim. As for their leader, Motian’s minimalist percussion is as subtle and steady as a heartbeat, even when it more readily suggests a cardboard box tumbling down the stairs.
Motian composed nearly all of the songs here; the exceptions are the title track (written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein for Showboat) and the closing “Dreamland” (by Thelonious Monk, Motian’s lodestar and, briefly, his boss). Not surprisingly, the entire program hews to the drummer’s guiding aesthetic, which might best be described as an exaltation of the subconscious. So we get what sounds obliquely like a border folk song (“Odd Man Out”), a playground chant (“The Bag Man”) and a high-wire balancing act (“Dance”). The A section of “One in Three” is effectively a bedtime lullaby, with Motian’s cymbals rusting the branches outside; the B section intrudes like a disquieting dream. In all the tunes, there are deceptively simple forms, a blend of wistfulness and whimsy and a sense of wonder at the world. Start to finish, this is music for the soul.