Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Portland Jazz Festival: A Celebration of ECM

There’s something to be said for jazz’s rejuvenating qualities when a 75-year-old man is more creative and prolific than most musicians a third his age. Or maybe there’s just something to be said for Paul Motian. Cloaked in a dark over-shirt with eyes hidden behind his trademark black specs, Motian is a septuagenarian sage of cool, a drum artisan whose time-keeping (or lack thereof) remains arguably the most inventive and singular technique practiced today. Motian effortlessly releases one meter-less abstraction after another, providing his expert band with formless rhythmic ambiance during sold-out, late-night dates at the most relevant jazz club in the world. Did I mention that Motian is in his 70s?

Of course, Motian has two brilliant foils in saxophonist Joe Lovano and guitarist Bill Frisell, both of whom already carry the drummer’s brand of ineffable chic. Lovano and Frisell have earned this mystique through discerningly choosing their many projects-both men have several concurrent collaborations, none of them anything less than fascinating-and by developing utterly unique tones. In the case of Lovano, that tone exhibits the confident lyricism that has marked most great horn men. Whenever Lovano barked stout maelstroms of notes toward his audience with the volume of a fire-and-brimstone preacher, there was a genteel, romantic line or pause not too far off. For all his melodic and modal adventurousness, Lovano still wants things to sound, well, pretty.

Frisell is no different, and his signature guitar sound-a painterly mix of delay effects with reverb and tremolo-relishes in the kind of individuality that made Miles’ muted trumpet a landmark in jazz sonics. Although obviously of lesser stature, Frisell is similarly influential in his respective field: Listen to talented whippersnapper guitarists on labels like Fresh Sound, KSJazz and ECM, Frisell’s former home, and you’ll absorb a cache of rip-off artists trying earnestly to say more with less in a clairvoyant, chiming timbre.

This set, most likely comprised of new Motian compositions to be released by this group in 2007, was less recognizable than one I’d witnessed at the Vanguard in the spring of 2005, after I Have the Room Above Her had been released. That set included songs that could be named without too much mental effort-the lonely, spherical “Osmosis, Pt. III” and a moonlit, starry-eyed take on Kern and Hammerstein’s title song. My notes from this go-around were more experiential and less diagnostic, which, in the case of this band, is probably more appropriate.

Frisell and Lovano became a muscular frontline on several tracks, charging from note to note on unison heads in a way that recalled the best meetings of post-hard-bop and the avant-garde-the Blue Note-era Coleman/Redman axis comes to mind. Frisell, who appears focused and calculated in his attack even when playing free, wrenched a gorgeous chord-melody solo from his guitar, and later, sensing the end of the set arriving, stomped on the distortion. The guitarist detuned his lowest string, chugged out a few palm-muted tones and let that pitch resonate underneath his wailing. Fleeting blues-rock phrases that matched the fuzz-tone emerged here and there while Lovano looked on and Motian fluttered around the snare drum demonstrating his classic textural ability with brushes.

Motian played only a few sparse moments of actual time throughout the set: On one tune, Frisell’s bobbing head kept more of a straight rhythm than the drummer. During a closing solo, Motian alternately navigated the kit and threw down authoritative cymbal crashes. Lovano, as enthralled as the audience, hooted in delight.

Before signing off, Motian stood, smiled and improvised a few words of thanks to the crowd in an affable, unpretentious demeanor more indicative of the neighborhood deli owner than a jazz visionary. It’s the coda to every Motian-led set that never stops being surprising-or sweet.

Originally Published