Paul Motian — three quarters of a century young and getting younger all the time — is furiously creating great music. It seems that the defiantly free and melodic drummer puts out a good album every year, maybe more than one. He records with all sorts of talented folks, and yet any album he graces is given the gift of his unique vision: jazz that is both messily free and deeply swinging and organized. Paul Motian makes free music sound like it all makes sense.
But even with all the music he is making these days, Live at the Village Vanguard stands out as something special. This is Motian’s “Trio 2000” (to be distinguished from his regular trio with Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell), featuring bassist Larry Grenadier and tenor saxophonist Chris Potter. Added for this date were alto player and bandleader Greg Osby and Japanese free jazz pianist Masabumi Kikuchi. It’s a combustible mixture, and this album is simply on fire.
The quintet plays expansively and brilliantly on five tunes — four elliptical Motian originals and the standard “If You Could See Me Now”. All clock in at around ten minutes, but each journey is much more than a string of solos surrounded by a theme. These tracks each play like sculptures. They look different from different angles, and each view is worth checking out. Potter typically brings heavyweight muscle, Osby darts like a featherweight, and Kukuchi acts as a half-drunk referee — making up the rules with a bob and a weave and a crazy sense of humor.
Kikuchi is likely to be the revelation here. The Japanese pianist is 68 years of age but seems like a fresh voice: loose-as-a-goose and willing to play both jarring tone clusters and playful, Monk-ish figures. His solo introduction to “If You Could See Me Now” is measured and lyrical like Bill Evans, but slowly conscious of silence like Paul Bley. It floats, but it has a curious weight as well — not so much a mixed metaphor as a seeming contradiction in terms that delights. When the band finally enters, it is with a raggedy swing that tumbles and lurches and ambles. Potter plays much of the melody but goes “out” soon enough, with Grenadier and Motian playing what amount to their own solos behind him. Soon, though, it is Osby and Potter trading commentaries on the song, with Osby sounding like the dog that doesn’t want to get caught as it dashes about a public park. Potter sounds more like the leash, perhaps, but they’re a great combination. Kikuchi essentially manufactures the surface that they chase each other across.
A similar dynamic appears elsewhere. On “Olivia’s Dream”, Kikuchi litters the landscape with knotted clusters and fat open chords, setting up a harmonic palette that spurs Potter and Osby into a furiously precise collective improvisation. Their twinned solos are not unattractive or hard to listen to — they come off like some kind of generous and new form of Dixieland, with Kikuchi acting as the ground rhythm and the basic format. The pianist’s solo is twinned with a solo from the bass, and so the tune is given a logical structural form.
“Marrock” is a somber but limber free ballad, and “Last Call” asks the horns to play a very close unison that almost sounds like a backwards anthem. The opener, “Standard Time”, is a Monkish theme that asks the saxophones to play large intervals that ultimately start to stagger and fragment until Grenadier emerges as a soloist. On all of these songs, the various players come and go with little regard to strict order. The proceedings sound like an exceptionally good party, with overlapping conversations that blend and fascinate, rather than little set pieces. It’s a special treat to hear Osby in this kind of free setting again. He sounds like he did ten years ago, a bit more in the vanguard. And so, when Potter follows him on “Last Call”, the contrast is just right: Potter more conventional and structured at first (quoting a Monk tune and sounding just a tad like Michael Brecker on this best day) and then unfurling himself into freedom as well.
Motian provides his usual non-time drumming, implying meter with accent and color, allowing the soloists a huge space in which to toy with the harmonies and melodies at hand. Grenadier rarely if ever “walks” but rather plays a counter melody throughout. And the Village Vanguard itself seems to be a soloist as well, as the space in which the music exists is perfectly captured in another outstanding piece of engineering from Winter and Winter.
Live at the Village Vanguard rises quickly to the top of Motian’s discography. The drummer almost never leaves New York these days, but why should he? Within a few miles of his place, he has an endless stream of collaborators, including this memorable quintet. With art like this at hand, you should be tempted to head to the city and never leave as well. Or, you can bring the magic of it all home with you on this riveting recording.