Paul Motian / Bill Frisell / Joe Lovano, 'I Have the Room Above Her' (2005)

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.

Purchase I Have the Room Above Her at ECM Records, or stream it on Apple Music or Spotify.

Tony Malaby, 'Adobe' (2004)

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.)

Tony Malaby has been an essential tenor saxophonist of this century: a dauntless explorer with no qualms about direct emotional address. His versatility, along with that rarer expressive quality, made him a go-to sideman in the 2000s — with Paul Motian's Electric Bebop Band and Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra, among others — as well as a reliable catharsis engine on the low-rent New York City club circuit.

Malaby has expanded his rep and his purview since, leading excellent bands like Paloma Recio, whose album Incantations I reviewed in the NY Times a couple of years ago. You may have heard him with pianist Kris Davis, or in Fred Hersch's Leaves of Grass, or with the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble. Or maybe you haven't heard him yet at all — in which case, have I got an album for you.


Adobe came out in 2004, and while Malaby had been releasing albums for a few years at that point, it was rightly understood as pivotal. I had forgotten about this, but I filed a capsule review for the Philadelphia City Paper at the time, which still captures my feeling:

Primarily known as a first-rate free improviser, Malaby has an introspective side that often gets underplayed. But this release firmly establishes the 40-year-old tenor and soprano saxophonist as a subtle melodist and mood-setter. His horn can be elegiac, as on "Dorotea la Cautiva," or quizzical, as on the winding "Cosas." What never falters is the freshness of his solo excursions. For this, he shares equal credit with his distinguished company. Drummer Paul Motian is jazz's sage of small gestures, capable of painting a canvas with one tap of a cymbal. And bassist Drew Gress reinforces his adept solo and support skills. Together this trio has made an attractively modest statement that should win Malaby converts from beyond his experimental base. 

Motian's role is worth expanding on for a moment. He was in his early 70s when he played on this recording, and already a sought-after elder on the scene. Obviously he had already established a genuine rapport with Malaby. But this album is representative of a larger shift, which I discuss in Playing Changes: as musicians like Motian began to age into a phase of eminence, their influence subtly transformed the character of the music at ground level. Listen to the way that his beat, with its patented sort of halting propulsion, informs "Cosas," which is a contrafact of the ageless standard "All the Things You Are." This track could have felt like a throwback gesture. Not with Motian in the mix.

Buy Adobe at Sunnyside Records, or stream it on Spotify or Apple Music.

Marilyn Crispell / Paul Motian / Gary Peacock, 'Amaryllis' (2001)

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.)

Marilyn Crispell's Amaryllis suggests both an extension and a departure. She had released one previous ECM album with Gary Peacock and Paul Motian — the 1997 repertory nod Nothing Ever Was, Anyway: The Music of Annette Peacock. This follow-up proceeded with less of a binding agenda, but the same degree of collective intuition.

Crispell had become known, during the late 1970s and throughout the '80s, for a furious, intelligent strain of pianism indebted to Cecil Taylor and Paul Bley. She spent a decade in Anthony Braxton's band, and personified the anti-absorptive strategies of a self-sustaining avant-garde. 


Amaryllis, named after a winter-blooming flower of the Andes, staked out a different position, though not an unrelated one. Crispell was warming to a new strain of lyricism, which she described as "an emerging quality" at the time.  

"I've been trying to be in touch with what I really am hearing," she told me in 2002, speaking by phone from her home in Woodstock, New York. "What I've noticed is that I'm moving away from a kind of angst-ridden, Viennese, Schoenberg-ian kind of tonality. Not necessarily into a self-indulgent romanticism, but more into a kind of... a pure lyrical quality, more abstract."

Working with Peacock and Motian, two acknowledged masters of lyrical abstraction, no doubt helped her move toward this aim. The album features compositions by all three artists, including a Peacock's "December Greenwings" and Motian's "Conception Vessel." There's a contemplative, almost hymnal quality in some of the pieces, most obviously "Prayer" and "Requiem."

But it's not as if Crispell has checked her exploratory impulse at the door. Listen here to "Rounds," a swarming piece that she first recorded in the early '80s. It's a fine illustration of the chiming, restless resonance of this trio, and a reminder (as if one were needed) that experimental urges could naturally cohabit with a luminous sort of beauty.

Purchase Amaryllis at Amazon, or stream it on Spotify or Apple Music.