Time for an ECM Two-fer: Paul Motion Trio and Ralph Towner/Paolo Fresu (2010)

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Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

by S. Victor Aaron

Last month ECM put on sale new offerings by two of their oldest stalwarts: drummer Paul Motian and Ralph Towner. Motian has been discussed on this site probably more than any other drummer, no doubt due to his long association with Bill Evans and his more recent contributions as both a leader and sideman. He began his association with this fabled label early on, in 1972, an association that continues today that was only interrupted from the mid 80s to the mid 90s.

Guitarist Ralph Towner, one of the founders of the seminal world jazz outfits Oregon, has also enjoyed an extensive relationship with ECM for his solo records, one that began around 1973 and has continued to this day nearly to the exclusion of all other record labels. Towner can also play piano, but his tool of preference is the acoustic guitar and he remains one of the world’s foremost and divergent practitioners of this popular instrument.

Two long, storied careers. And this is where is each of these careers stand in 2010:

Paul Motian Trio Lost In A Dream

The last time we scrutinized a Motian new album, it was to review Live At The Village Vanguard, Vol. 1, from 1997. Since that time, he’s come out with Vol. 2 (2008) and On Broadway, Vol. 5 (2009). For this year’s release, Lost In A Dream, unveils a new trio for Motian: he retains his lengthy association with saxophonist Chris Potter, but bassist Larry Grenadier from the Live At The Village Vanguard series is replaced by pianist Jason Moran, who was last profiled on another ECM release, Charles Lloyd’s delectable Rabo de Nube (2008). The bass-less trio puts this combo in closer proximity to the 80s and 90s trio Motian had led with Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell.

While that is an important difference from Live At The Village Vanguard, this one was recorded live at the Village Vanguard, too. Motian and ECM head Manfred Eicher gleaned the more provocative ballad numbers in assembling this album. In keeping with the Motian ethos, mood and instinct are the dominant themes in these group of songs all penned by Motian, except for Irving Berlin’s “Be Careful, It’s My Heart.” The melodies don’t follow normal structures, they each meander around some vaguely identifiable core. It creates the right atmosphere for impressionistic, seraphic expressions. In a way, in fact, Motian comes full circle back to his time with Evans and LaFaro.

Moran’s emotional, understated style, already noted in the Lloyd article, is also a good fit for Motian, too. Moran never forces the issue, always letting the song come to him. Potter for his part produces some of the prettiest playing I’ve ever heard from him on record. He’s got such a great rapport with the drummer that he’s long since developed a distinctive personality he deploys just for his gigs with Motian. The mood doesn’t vary perceptibly from track to track, but I’d single out “Blue MIdnight” as one where the three offer up a particularly sublime performance that best illustrates Motian’s signature approach.

Out since March 9, Lost In A Dream isn’t toe-tapping jazz, but it’s both cerebral and relaxing at once. Few can do both together like a band led by Paul Motian.

Ralph Towner & Paolo Fresu Chiaroscuro

Ralph Towner’s latest is a duet co-lead by Italian trumpet virtuoso Paolo Fresu, who was prominent on Carla Bley’s excellent The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu. When scanning Fresu’s body of work across the last quarter century, you find a trumpeter with a command of a wide variety of styles, but his deep melodicism is the common denominator across all of it. His pristine, clear trumpet rarely wavers, and that goes double for his flugelhorn. He uses both for Chiaroscuro, his duet with Towner.

Towner brings most of the compositions to this setting, some written for other projects and others for this one. There’s also two short improvisational pieces with Fresu and one standard covered. Employing a classical, 12-string or baritone guitar, Towner characteristically blurs the lines between folk, jazz and chamber music in a collection that is predictably mellow and sparse. That isn’t to say there’s nothing going on, but it requires concentrated listening to pick up on the real action. When the ears are too lazy to do such heavy lifting, this still makes for fine background, chill-out music. The standout piece is that cover, which is Miles Davis & Bill Evans’ “Blue In Green,” a perfect vehicle for Towner and Fresu’s spotless articulations.

On sale March 16, Chiaroscuro falls right into the ECM characteristic of airy, subtle jazz, the side of ECM most people associate with the label. There’s much more to ECM than that, of course, but you could do much worse than this fine example of that stereotype.


S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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