Marilyn Crispell w/ Mark Helias, Paul Motian, Joe Lovano

Once a self-described purist of the Cecil Taylor “energy music” school, pianist Marilyn Crispell is now a more lyrical, contemplative artist, as reflected in her recent work for ECM Records. But improvisers this gifted aren’t so easily categorized. At Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, Crispell moved between aesthetic worlds. Her working trio with bassist Mark Helias and drummer Paul Motian—documented on the 2004 album Storyteller—tends toward the spacious and austere, with loose rhythms and floating melodies and occasional flares of great intensity. Joined at Miller by tenor sax giant Joe Lovano, Crispell and her colleagues made full use of the increased sound and expanded options. There were two long and satisfying sets, drawing on music by each of the four players.

Ayano Hisa

Joe Lovano

Although Lovano is adept on multiple saxes and reeds, with Crispell he played only tenor. His rapport with Motian was of course striking. In a quartet mode, though in a rather different idiom, the two have made sublime music with Hank Jones on the Blue Note discs I’m All for You and Joyous Encounter. As they grappled with Crispell’s more left-of-center concept, they recalled some of the flavor of their celebrated trio with Bill Frisell—particularly during the sax/drum duet that introduced the Motian piece “Morpion.” Crispell expanded the frame gradually, with fragmented chords and dense patterns, building to feverish heights. On Motian’s “Flight of the Bluejay,” an ebullient folkish theme offset by short, dissonant outbursts, she launched into her most dexterous and virtuosic playing of the night. Here and in several other instances, Motian seemed to provide tempo in a tempo-less context. Only Lovano’s “Topsy Turvy” and Crispell’s “Rounds” ventured into outright swing—but on Motian’s “Dance,” a tumbling, challenging line followed by storms of ensemble sound, the drummer provided a rhythmic center on ride cymbal without spoiling the abstraction. Such is Motian’s musical free will that he ad-libbed drum breaks and ended these two pieces alone, with loud hits to the snare, delighting his surprised bandmates.

Crispell’s playing skirted the edges of tonality, but she introduced the beautiful “One December” in the manner of a jazz ballad. With its romantic cadences, stately pulse and shimmering, sustained final chord, this could have been a Sondheim number (as a friend in the next chair remarked). “Tune for Charlie,” another gem by Crispell, unfolded along a similar arc. The quartet played difficult unison themes—Crispell’s “Lines for Joe,” Motian’s “Conception Vessel” and “Cosmology”—in a woozy but determined rubato, with unstrained precision. Helias, with a muscular tone and remarkable inventiveness, played unaccompanied solos in front of his two pieces, “Limbo” and “Harmonic Line.” The latter was draped in gothic, classical accents and almost recalled the bridge to “A Night in Tunisia.” Alas, Helias was too low in the mix, frequently drowned out when the band reached full volume.

The evening culminated in Motian’s “Mode VI,” a softly stated tenor line with just a hint of agitation, growing into an involved study in four-way counterpoint. The group then segued to John Coltrane’s “Dear Lord,” a classic major-key ode, handled by Lovano with aplomb. Crispell has also been known to play Coltrane’s “After the Rain” with her trio, but what seemed even closer in spirit to “Dear Lord” was Alice Coltrane’s “Jagadishwar,” heard the following night at Prudential Hall in Newark, N.J. Here were two women, both pianists, luxuriating in a jazz language at once sophisticated and spiritual, informed by tradition but looking toward infinity.

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