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Paul Motian: Paul Motian (box set)

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In the second decade of the new millennium, it is not an uncommon occurrence to get up in the morning, turn on your computer and learn of the passing of another significant jazz figure who came up in the ’50s or ’60s. But the death of Paul Motian in 2011 hit the jazz world especially hard. People took it personally. He represented a unique, pure paradigm within the jazz aesthetic. It seemed impossible that his spare, diverse iterations of energy would no longer be improving countless ensembles.

This six-CD box in ECM’s Old & New Masters series contains Motian’s first six albums as a leader for the label, recorded between 1972 and 1984. The first two, Conception Vessel and Tribute, present sextets and quintets dominated by stringed instruments (guitar, violin, bass). They are very early versions of what became known as “the ECM sound”: airy, rapt, atmospheric, crystalline in sonic quality. It was the era when ECM’s motto was “the most beautiful sound next to silence.” The silences here are always subtly disturbed by Motian’s ambiguous accents and implicit tensions. The second two, Dance and Le Voyage, are trios with outcat Charles Brackeen. “The ECM sound” had room for both soprano saxophone quietude and raging tenor saxophone skronk. The last two are Psalm and It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago. They launch Motian’s rarefied creative interface with Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell, a partnership that endured, with interruptions, for 30 years.

In his insightful liner notes, pianist Ethan Iverson calls Motian “one of the music’s most important bandleaders,” and an original composer whose scores were “lean, clean single pages of linear beauty.” The claims are initially surprising. Motian was one of the great, ubiquitous sidemen in the history of jazz. He did not make his first album as a leader until he was over 40, and never kept a working band together for an extended period. None of his tunes has become a jazz standard. But this box reveals that, from the beginning, Motian’s own projects, while highly diversified (as if he started from scratch each time), always had a passionate, clear cause. Even on Conception Vessel, his debut, he was able to integrate distinctive powerful voices (Keith Jarrett, Charlie Haden, violinist Leroy Jenkins, guitarist Sam Brown) into his own poetic vision.

As for his compositions, when you hear them for the first time, they sound like music that has always been there, waiting. Each tune is as definitive and as provisional as a haiku, and therefore creates special opportunities and serious responsibilities for improvisers.

This box is also an occasion to rediscover wonderful players, long forgotten, like Brown, Brackeen, alto saxophonist Carlos Ward and bassist J.F. Jenny-Clark. Brown’s glowing strands of free melody, set against Haden’s dark bass, are continuously hypnotic on Conception Vessel and Tribute. How is it that Brackeen, fully fluent in so many avant-garde saxophone languages, has recorded so infrequently? The calls of Ward on Tribute are pure emanations of loneliness. (The ECM label is a repository of beautiful loneliness.) And Bill Frisell’s early forays into digital loops and delays are immense sonic landscapes with distant horizons, revelations at the time.

Of course, one consciousness unifies all this varied music. As you listen, you can choose to simply feel Motian’s drumming in the ensemble, feel how he alters everything with his shadings, his flickerings, his asymmetrical scattered detonations. Or you can choose, at least for a while, to concentrate specifically on Motian, and experience his percussion as the vast orchestral content it always was, so unique to himself yet so selfless in the music.

Originally Published