Tethered Moon

[8 July 2003]

By Thomas Bartlett

S E T    L I S T
So in Love
Ballad from Tosca
Improvisation 1
Improvisation 2
Improvisation 3

The highlight of the JVC Jazz Festival’s Paul Motian-curated week at the Village Vanguard was Tuesday’s performance by the Tethered Moon trio, with Gary Peacock and Masabumi Kikuchi. “Tethered Moose?” said a friend when I told him about the concert, “that’s a terrible name!” He was no less disgusted when I changed “moose” back to “moon”. But while the name may sound a little cheesy at first, after listening to the trio’s music, I found it to be like a good title for a poem: not only evocative and descriptive, but also independently illuminating, adding something essential to your understanding. Pondering the gently paradoxical image of the group’s title made me realize that Tethered Moon’s music is defined not by the obvious, willfully unfettered rhapsodizing so apparent on its surface, but by the stealthy, almost covert way in which it is reigned in.

Given the hushed, intensely focused nature of their music, it was a little surprising to see the band making their way slowly to the stage, in animated conversation with each other, and with friends in the audience. Bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Paul Motian arrived first, and I noticed that Peacock looked something like Patrick Stewart, and Motian was more than a little reminiscent of Ben Kingsley. That’s surprisingly accurate, but it’s also a nice way of pointing out that they are both elderly, white, and bald. They are also two of the most important, inventive, and consistently brilliant sidemen in recent jazz history. It was amusing to realize, as they waited for someone to sit down at the piano, that that person could in theory have been Marilyn Crispell, Paul Bley, Martial Solal, or Keith Jarrett, all of whom they have backed in a piano trio setting. Instead it was Masabumi Kikuchi, a Japanese pianist whose talents can be heard on only a handful of recordings, and who makes it stateside very rarely indeed.

Peacock began alone, high on the bass, with a slowly developing circular figure. His tone, as usual, was completely alive and constantly in motion, an acoustic bass sound with very little wood in it. Soon he was joined by Motian, tapping a carefully inconsistent pattern on the cymbals, seeming intent on finding the spaces between Peacock’s notes. I expected Kikuchi to enter with the same kind of animated but constantly interrupted energy, but instead, after a few whispered chords, he began with “So in Love”, the Cole Porter standard, played extraordinarily slowly and with no swing or noticeable jazz inflection, almost like a hymn. Kikuchi coaxes an incredible sound out of the piano, largely for the simple reason that he cares so much: no other pianist working in jazz today listens so intensely. He leans down over the piano, his head practically inside it, and listens to each note he plays, sometimes letting it die down to almost nothing before hitting another. As Kikuchi played through the standard’s melody, Peacock and Motian seemed to ignore him, continuing on as they had before, but sometimes with tiny alterations that made all three instruments fall into place together, if only for a moment. The overall effect was magical. I realized too that on its own Kikuchi’s playing of the standard would have seemed a little overly sentimental, but that the constant distraction of the bass and drums allowed it to be simply moving.

After finishing “So in Love”, Kikuchi, rather than improvising on the song’s chords, joined with Peacock and Motian, playing strangely phrased single-note lines that worked as a glue for the increasingly scattered drum and bass. But soon he managed to twist the whole affair into a suitably fractured version of Thelonius Monk’s “Jackie-ing”. Next came a beautiful tune, started alone by Kikuchi, that slowly took shape as a Ballad from Tosca. The whole trio played at a whisper, with no sudden movements or accented notes. Peacock seemed to be playing along with the changes of the tune, but he and Kikuchi never played them exactly together, so that the harmonies were constantly overlapping and bleeding into each other. Motian added atmosphere, but somehow managed to make it with short, dry taps at the cymbals, rather than the more typical waves of sound made by brushing them. It was one of the more unusual, and beautifully calibrated trio performances I have heard.

A few moments into the next group improvisation, Peacock began playing a repetitive blues line, which the other two quickly took up and turned into an almost standard form blues. I say almost because Peacock slyly staggered his line, so that the phrases remained irregular. During this blues, notable both for Motian’s strange, circular beat, and Kikuchi’s simple, muezzin-like soloing, the trio reached its highest volume—which was still quieter than most jazz groups ever bother to get.

After the blues, they played through a series of extended improvisations, always hushed but never sleepy, and always teetering between tonality and completely free playing. The set ended as it began, with Peacock playing alone, high on his bass. Throughout these improvisations, it was Peacock’s playing that provided the most interest. He is always a completely free voice as a bassist, weaving his own melodies through the music, rarely playing what could be called bass lines. What was unusual tonight was the extent to which he played in circular patterns, building phrases through constant reiterations. This helped to make the very abstract music that Tethered Moon was playing intelligible, and held the improvisations together.

As beautiful as the improvisations were, though, I found myself wishing that they would play another tune. This is an excellent improvising trio, but what they do with standards is even more unusual. The way that Kikuchi stretches these tunes out, and the way that Peacock and Motian take his beautiful sounds and make them levitate, gently suspended in the air, is a rare and delicate thing.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/tethered-moon-030624/