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Marilyn Crispell/Gary Peacock/Paul Motian: Amaryllis

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While the Crispell trio’s previous ECM disc, which featured the music of Annette Peacock, was widely praised, I found it a rather dour and occasionally ponderous set. Amaryllis is very different. Much of the music has a lighter, airier feel, and the trio’s exchanges are delightfully deft. There has always been a lyrical element in Crispell’s pianism, but it’s never been as apparent or as finely honed as it is here.

Each member of the trio contributes a few compositions, but the heart of this music lies in four pieces collectively improvised in the studio. “Amaryllis,” “Voices,” “M.E.” and “Avatar” are all spacey, delicate forays, almost free-form ballads that take the listener through an interior soundscape of hushed, filigree beauty. Peacock’s fluent bass and Motian’s ultrasensitive percussion are vital factors, yet it’s Crispell’s sureness of touch that stands out; her choice of notes are pared back in Zenlike economy. As she remarks, these pieces show that “freedom is not a concept that can be reserved for any one particular style of improvised music.”

A similarly terse lyricism informs several of the compositions on Amaryllis, notably Crispell’s lovely “Silence” and Gary Peacock’s “Voice from the Past.” Ironically, more conventional expressions of freedom can be heard on two other composed pieces, Crispell’s “Rounds” and Paul Motian’s “Morpion,” which feature darting, rapid-fire piano runs and stabbing percussion. Crispell’s trademark ability to infuse the music with a sudden, surging joy is evident on “Amaryllis” and Motian’s exuberant “Circle Dance.”

The tracks are all relatively short, which is a mixed blessing. While the scampering excitement of “Rounds” and “Morpion” might be most effective in short bursts, the rhapsodic impulses of “Amaryllis,” “Silence” and “Avatar” feel unduly abbreviated. Overall, the CD seems like a set of vignettes; sketches that, while undeniably beautiful, could possibly benefit from a more extended realization. But perhaps that will be the next step-Zen bones to Zen flesh.