Marilyn Crispell’s 2001 ECM release “Amaryllis” was described, by Gary Giddins in the Village Voice, as “uncommonly thoughtful”, and “dramatic [in its] expression of lyricism”. This is equally, if not more, true of “Storyteller”. Since Crispell arrived at ECM with her landmark recording, “Nothing ever was, anyway”, reinterpreting the compositions of Annette Peacock, she has been re-evaluating the meaning of ‘intensity’ in her work and rechanneling it, allowing other aspects of her musical personality to come to the fore.
If the parameters of her early work were defined by energy, speed and attack – she counts amongst the most articulate of pianists to have been profoundly influenced by Cecil Taylor – the lyrical qualities of her music have consistently distinguished it from the output of many contemporaries – as indeed Taylor was the first to recognize. In the recent music there is a more rigorous sense of form, as well as an awareness that power can often reside in the unstated. Nothing is abandoned in the new music but when characteristic torrents of sound are unleashed in “Cosmology 2”, ten songs into the set, the impact is the stronger for the tension established along the way.
In other words, the lyricism and the energy balance each other, and the music as a whole is the stronger for it. “It’s all evolving process,” Crispell told the San Francisco Bay Guardian. “And the process is not something you can pin down. Categories don’t account for process… I’m feeling more open about expressing everything I feel and not playing what I think I should play to satisfy anyone’s preconceptions, including my own.” And, to the Boston Globe, “Energy will always be part of me – even when I play Bach, which is still my favourite music – but now my lyrical side feels more centred. Intensity remains the thread that ties all of my music together, although now some of the intensity is inner-directed.”
The band shows great poise and control throughout. The continual interaction between Crispell and master drummer Paul Motian is of immense subtlety (easy to argue that this is also one of Motian’s best recordings). Mediating between them is new band member Mark Helias. A very different player from Gary Peacock (the trio’s previous bassist), he completes and anchors the band. Helias shows a firm, rhythmic grasp, like a heartbeat – one reason why he was Ed Blackwell’s preferred bassist for many years – and also contributes a couple of tunes to the repertoire including the irresistibly catchy “Harmonic Line”.
There are strong pieces from Crispell here – “Wild Rose”, “Alone”, “So Far, So Near” - that reflect her current focus on both the poetic compression in the playing and the yearning for wider space in the form. And there is also a showcasing of Paul Motian’s gifts as a unique songwriter, which first flowered with the encouragement of ECM in the early 1970s. Crispell has gone back through three decades of Motian compositions to select six pieces for this recording – they range from “The Sunflower”, written for Paul’s wonderful group with Charles Brackeen and J.F. Jenny-Clark (see 1979’s “Le Voyage”), to “Light of the Bluejay” premiered by his Electric Bebop Band. All of the material is transformed by Crispell’s sensitive touch.
There is something essential in Motian’s writing that links it with Thelonious Monk’s (as a young drummer Paul played with Monk) and Crispell has isolated this quality. Motian’s tunes can seem both naïve and sagacious, both in the jazz tradition and from somewhere else entirely. In Paul’s case his melodic sense is likely influenced by the Armenian and Turkish music he heard in his childhood. The principles that drive the tunes are much like those that drive Motian’s drumming, well described by Bill Shoemaker in Jazz Times:
“Motian’s signatures are to be found in counterintuitive responses to the unfolding music: He chooses silence where many drummers knee jerk their way through a flurry of chops, and slips a cubist sketch of tune’s rhythmic implications into the niches most drummers simply ride through.”
Marilyn Crispell was schooled in classical music, studying piano from the age of 7. Graduating in piano and composition from the New England Conservatory of Music, she came late to jazz, but by 1978 was teaching at Karl Berger's Creative Music Studio. There she met many musicians with whom she has since worked, including Roscoe Mitchell, Wadada Leo Smith, Oliver Lake and, most crucially, Anthony Braxton. Extensive touring and recording with Braxton raised her critical profile and paved the way for numerous albums of her own for a plethora of little labels. Crispell's recordings have ranged from solo improvisations to programmes of Coltrane's music to performances of contemporary composition (by Manfred Niehaus, Robert Cogan, Barry Guy and others). Documented encounters with improvisers have included meetings with Fred Anderson, Evan Parker, Peter Brötzmann, Charles Gayle, Irène Schweizer, Eddie Prévost, Billy Bang, Tim Berne and the massed cast of the London Jazz Composers Orchestra. Amongst her influences, Crispell has cited Coltrane, Bach, Webern, Braxton, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, Thelonious Monk and Annette Peacock.
Paul Motian, of course, made history as a member of Bill Evans's groundbreaking trio with Scott LaFaro, and was a member of Paul Bley’s no less innovative trio with Gary Peacock. He has also played with Lennie Tristano, Coleman Hawkins, Thelonious Monk, Charles Lloyd, John Gilmore and Pharoah Sanders. Motian made his ECM debut – and his first album as a leader/composer – with "Conception Vessel" in 1972; sidemen included Keith Jarrett, Charlie Haden and Leroy Jenkins. As a member of Jarrett's "American Quartet", Motian played on the critically-acclaimed "The Survivors' Suite" and "Eyes Of The Heart". Leader dates for ECM include "Tribute" (with Carlos Ward and Haden), "Dance" (with Charles Brackeen and David Izenzon), "Le Voyage" (with Brackeen and J.F. Jenny-Clark), and "It Should Have Happened A Long Time Ago" (which introduced the Motian/Bill Frisell/Joe Lovano Trio, still occasionally playing together after 20 years). Motian can be heard, furthermore, on ECM recordings by Charlie Haden, Bill Frisell and Paul Bley.
Mark Helias first made his presence in the mid 1970s, working with Ed Blackwell, Wadada Leo Smith, Anthony Davis and Gerry Hemingway among others, and debuted on ECM in 1982 as a member of Dewey Redman’s group. In the group Nu, he played with Don Cherry, Nana Vasconcelos and, again, Ed Blackwell. He has also had a long association with Ray Anderson. Other musicians with whom he has worked include Cecil Taylor, Oliver Lake, Julius Hemphill, Marty Ehrlich, Joe Lovano, Butch Morris and Don Byron. Helias has also issued several albums as a leader.