The trio of Paul Motian, Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell finishes a two-week gig at the Village Vanguard this Sunday, and if you’re in the New York area, you should drop in (though call ahead for tickets, as nearly every set, including the one I saw last night, has been packed). Here are three of the most creative jazz musicians around, each playing at the top of his game, a combination that doesn’t always make for the most coherent combos (think of the many “all-star bands” of yore that amounted to little more than blowing contests), but this trio is that rare thing, a truly equilateral triangle: no player consistently dominate, all parts are equal.

But what makes this trio so riveting is that the music swings, rocks, sizzles, simmers—and I don’t understand idea how the contraption holds together; I can only marvel at the feat, sit back, and take it in.

Lovano blows the tenor sax with a warm, husky tone, sometimes as a bop balladeer, sometimes in Coltrane sheets of sound. (Lovano is shaping up to be the heir to Sonny Rollins.) Frisell plucks his twangy electric guitar, occasionally strums slightly off-centered chords, more often carves out single-line counterpoint or beams atmospheric warbling. Motian (who’s 78 but could pass for 60 and sounds younger still) klook-a-mops and shimmer-shammers the drumkit, constantly shifting rhythm and tempo; his lines seem to have almost no connection to what the other players are doing, yet the more you listen, the more you realize that he’s weaving the web that makes the sounds whole.

I’ve heard Motian many times, with many bands, over the years; he pulls this rabbit out of a hat nearly every time; and I don’t see how he does it. I once asked Frank Kimbrough, an excellent pianist who’s played with him a few times, what Motian is doing. Kimbrough, who’s normally eloquent on such matters, replied, “I don’t know, man, it’s magic.”

For those unable to make the Vanguard sets, immerse yourself in Time and Time Again, the trio’s enchanting 2007 album on ECM. Also check out Lovano’s new albums, Folk Art and (as a sideman to Steve Kuhn) Mostly Coltrane (on Blue Note and ECM respectively), and Frisell’s duet masterpiece with Jim Hall, Hemispheres (on Artistshare), all of which I’ve written about in this space.

Frisell also has a brand new CD, Disfarmer (on Nonesuch), a quartet album—with fellow guitarist Greg Leisz, violinist Jenny Scheinman, and bassist Viktor Krauss—featuring original tunes inspired by the haunting pictures of rural Americans taken in the 1930s and ‘40s by the photographer known as Disfarmer. The music is more folk and country than jazz; it’s as evocative in its way as Erik Friedlander’s Block Ice & Propane another hybrid, inspired by memories of going on summertime family car rides across the country with his father, the photographer Lee Friedlander. And that's saying a great deal.

jrmandude's picture

I don't know why, but the music that gives me the biggest kick almost always cuts across genre boundaries. I would ride with Ellington when he spoke of his music as beyond category, but without the categories I would not know what I was listening to.

Ron I's picture

"this trio is that rare thing, a genuine isosceles triangle: no player consistently dominates, all parts are equal."Perhaps you had an equilateral triangle in mind (all sides and angles equal) rather than isosceles (two sides and angles equal).

Fred Kaplan's picture

You know, Ron I., I always did get the two mixed up. I'll change it. Thanks...Fred Kaplan

Derrek Wayne's picture

You know, it's an amazing thing about Jazz that players can reach such high levels and still form new groups and new dynamics. Listening to the new Frisell now. Thanks for reminder to check that out.DW