Listen to a few snippets of piano jazz, and it might be difficult to tell if the performance is that of a composed song or a free improvisation. The piano, though it would seem to be the most limited of jazz instruments - just try bending a note on one - is really one of the best for smooth improvisation. A skilled player can improvise within the framework of the most tightly composed song without missing a beat, and the best improvisers - think Keith Jarrett, for example - can find limitless possibility within those 88 black and white keys.
Because of this, some of the most satisfying jazz improvisations come from piano trios. The pianist offers a tentative framework—a few chords, some melodic forms—and the bass and drums begin fleshing out the song, playing off the melody and rhythm as the track takes shape. One way to judge the success of such forays is to compare them to pre-composed tracks. Another way is to analyze the songs’ sheer inventive and lyrical qualities. On both counts, Marilyn Crispell’s Amaryllis is a success.
Crispell is best known as a member of the Anthony Braxton Quartet in the 1980s. Her style is described often with powerful words: intense, slashing, volatile. She has made a name for herself as a solo performer, particularly with the two players who join her here, bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Paul Motian. She last recorded with this trio on 1997’s Nothing Ever Was, Anyway, also on ECM. That double CD contained performances of the work of composer Annette Peacock.
Gary Peacock is an excellent, journeyman bassist, most notable for his stints with Miles Davis, Paul Bley and Albert Ayler. Motian is an old hand at the piano trio format, sitting behind the kit in Bill Evans’ most well known trio. Both lend a sense of careful exploration to the proceedings here.
On Amaryllis, Crispell, Peacock and Motian play quietly, and do it well, her style suffers not a bit from the subtlety required by these tunes. Her work with Braxton may have been fiery, but Crispell and her trio play at a smoldering slow burn through most of this disc.
On the Amaryllis date, the trio recorded a mixture of old tracks, new songs and improvised pieces. That could make for a disjointed album, but the simpatico playing here makes this a cohesive, even listen.
The best tunes here are the four improvised tracks: “Amaryllis”, “Voices”, “M.E.”, and “Avatar”. Without that guide, you’d be hard pressed to pick them out among the dozen tracks here because the players are so seasoned, so in the pocket, that they feel composed. The phrasing is smooth and clear, the ideas stated succinctly. Rarely is improvised playing this melodic. We have producer Manfred Eicher to thank for these tracks, according to Crispell’s liner notes: “Gary, Paul and I came to this session with compositions of our own, some of which are recorded on this CD. But for me, the revelation of the session came when Manfred suggested that we play some slow free pieces. What emerged was, possibly, some of the most beautiful music on this album. These pieces were not ‘composed’, but sound as though they were. There’s a great depth of communication, a rare delicacy. It’s a very ‘inner space’ “.
Another four of the dozen tunes here are a couple of decades old or more. Crispell’s “Rounds” is from 1981, Peacock’s “Voice from the Past” and “December Greenwings” are early ‘80s compositions, and Motian’s “Conception Vessel/Circle Dance” was written in the early ‘70s. Again, there is a universality to these tracks, thanks to the sympathetic playing of the trio, that makes them mesh well with the new pieces on the disc.
Peacock’s “Voice from the Past” starts the disc on a contemplative note, and while some tunes convey more energy than others, this is a mannered release. The trio seems always to be feeling things out, the bass nosing in and out of the nooks and crannies created by Crispell’s chording, while Motian lays down a slow, steady beat. Things pick up from that first track, heading directly into the first improvised piece, Crispell’s title track. The disc flows like this, back and forth between new and old, improvised and composed, but all the tracks are of a piece with the whole. This is a vivid collection of songs given mature performance by a whip smart trio.