Just because no one is playing the tempo doesn’t mean it’s not there. Paul Motian probably didn’t establish this rule, but he certainly lives it, and more than any other drummer in jazz he has indoctrinated us against expecting that the man behind the kit should be the one who assumes that responsibility. In other words, the tempo, the rhythm, the time signature-it belongs to all of us and none of us. If you, the saxophonist, and you, the pianist, are going to improvise, then I, the drummer, am too. Not only that, but that’s pretty much all I’m going to do.
This philosophy seems to be the guiding force in Motian’s music, especially as it applies to his Trio 2000 + Two, which features tenor saxophonist Chris Potter and bassist Larry Grenadier plus alto saxophonist Greg Osby, violist Mat Maneri, and pianist Masabumi Kikuchi. (Isn’t that six people? Never mind.) Motian did a three-night stand with this band at the Village Vanguard in December 2006, and he must have liked what he heard, because here comes the second volume of music from it.
Again, the drummer is an equal-opportunity improviser in Motian’s book. When he played with Bill Evans back in the late ’50s and early ’60s, Motian and bassist Scott LaFaro did a beautiful job keeping time for the pianist. But those days are gone. Drums and cymbals are there more for color and texture than to help the other musicians remember which beat they’re supposed to be on. But there is a second guiding principle in Motian’s work, and that one places a premium on patience, breathing room, and the spaces between the notes.
Four of the six tunes on Live at the Village Vanguard, Vol. II are Motian originals, but the set leads off with Richard Whiting’s “Till We Meet Again,” an interesting if odd choice for an opener. Almost immediately, Motian is playing in a different time signature than his partners, and then he is not playing in one at all. This idea repeats throughout the album: the tempo merely suggested, with no one actually playing it. What trust and empathy it must have taken in order to pull this off! Potter states the theme up front but quickly lets harmonic thoughts take over his horn.
Motian’s compositions are mostly introduced with a short theme stated in unison by the two horns before the structure falls away and the free-blowing ensues. Potter and Osby must have felt an immense sense of freedom on tunes like “The Third Walk,” where neither of them seems to play in any particular key, or, rather, they are allowed to play in whatever key comes to mind. Say hello to the elephant in the room: Motian is leading a free-jazz group. That is never more evident than during “Sunflower,” most of which is an extemporaneous exchange among the rhythm section (to the point where these guys can be characterized as such). Kikuchi rumbles along, deliberately off-key, and punctuates turbulent passages with deep-octave chord stabs. Which drives the point home: These songs may have heads, but they matter little once the first few measures have passed.
Again on “Ten,” the theme drops off and the musicians surprise. This time Motian doesn’t even play: Much of what follows is a subdued but tense exchange between piano and saxophones. A brief pause is interrupted by applause, and the intensity escalates as Kikuchi, Potter and Osby whip up a firestorm. Motian plays in time on “The Divider,” but it’s a different signature than the one the song is in. After a two-and-a-half-minute version of Tadd Dameron’s “If You Could See Me Now,” which the band played in long form on Vol. I, the band concludes with “Fiasco,” which to the neophyte might sound like one. A more accurate title would have been “Like-Minded People Free Associating.”
Which brings us to a third guiding principle of Motian’s music: No bar is played like the one that preceded it. When you trust yourself and your fellow musicians to listen intently to one another and to respond accordingly, the creativity flows, and there is no need for anyone-drummer, bassist-to state the time, to keep the beat. Similar expectations are made of the audience. And so this is not background music. Intent listening is also a prerequisite for full appreciation of Motian’s work.