Since the 1997 release of Nothing Ever Was, Anyway, a program comprised of songs by Annette Peacock, pianist-composer Marilyn Crispell has moved steadily into a realm of dark interior spaces and subtle, secretive ecstasies. Formerly (and still occasionally) a fire-breather of the Cecil Taylor school, the pianist has found a kind of spiritual resolution in quietude-a virtue handsomely captured on her last ECM trio record, Amaryllis. Now comes Storyteller: different bassist, same rarified air. Remarkably, given the strength of the previous two albums, Crispell has yet again raised the bar.
Two crucial changes help differentiate Storyteller from its most immediate precursor. The first is the substitution of Mark Helias for Gary Peacock, whose rapport with Crispell has always been profound. But Helias holds down the fort in more demonstrative fashion, resulting in a music that's as earthy as it is exquisite. On an aptly titled "Play," the bassist even nudges the trio toward a haltingly buoyant swing, a component that only lurked beneath the surface of Amaryllis. Helias also contributed two strong compositions to the album, the ecclesiastical "Limbo" and the seemingly harmolodic "Harmonic Line."
The second crucial difference is Paul Motian, whose sparse, poetical drumming was equally central to Amaryllis, but whose compositions positively shimmer in this context. Crispell chose to reinterpret several of the percussionist's gems for this session, including the elegiac title track and "Flight of the Bluejay," which was debuted by Motian's Electric Bebop Band. Together with "The Sunflower," these songs form a grouping that nearly overshadows the other tunes on the disc-despite the aforementioned Helias pieces and several very good themes by Crispell.
That said, the great success of Storyteller is in the telling. Crispell remains a strikingly lyrical pianist, and Motian is clearly inspired. Helias fits into this matrix without any apparent strain. The end result is music that dwells in abstraction but pursues beauty. And in its range of tempos, textures and moods, it presents a more multidimensional picture than even Crispell's other recent triumphs. Any jazz fan should hear this album at least twice; if the first time doesn't entice you, the second should do the trick.