Masabumi Kikuchi Trio

ECM 2096

Russ Lossing

Drum Music (Music of Paul Motian)

Sunnyside SSC 1319

By Ken Waxman

Although inextricably linked to Bill Evans for his sensitive work in the pianist’s trio of the early ‘60s, drummer Paul Motian (1931-2011) developed his minimalist rhythmic sense earlier in clarinetist Tony Scott’s quartet and extended himself as a band leader and composer from 1972 onwards. Helmed by two pianists of widely divergent ages and backgrounds, these fine CDs celebrate Motian’s contributions as a player and writer.

Although cast in the same mould as the Evans trio, pianist Masabumi Kikuchi’s Sunrise is a much freer date with ensemble improvisations in an all-original program. Formerly part of the Tethered Moon trio with Motian, which specialized in interpretations of others’ work, the then 70-year-old Tokyo-born keyboardist decided he “didn’t want to be part of someone else’s history” and also gave free reign to the drummer, then 78, and the much younger bassist Thomas Morgan, who has toured with pianist Craig Taborn.

With nearly every one of the 10 tunes unrolling in slow motion, structure usually depends on Kikuchi’s translucent note placement and craggy yet limpid phrasing, as well as the bassist’s sympathetic plucks. More sensed than heard, Motian’s contribution in the main consist of a cymbal snap here or an angled rim shot there. Even when he assets himself as on the aptly named “Short Stuff” and “Sticks And Cymbals”, the result is about as far from the usual percussion showcased as Japan is from the US. With staccato clattering and patting the first piece is over almost before it starts; as for the latter, the drummer contrasts his isolated clinks, reverberations and ruffs with Morgan’s thick string slaps and the pianist’s tremolo pacing, while higher-pitched keys clank like mahjong tiles. With most tracks taken rubato, any tendency to floweriness on the pianist’s part is muted, as are any over-aggressive moves from the other players. If there’s a weakness it’s that the tracks frequently appear truncated, as if the musicians still have more to express.

Moving from a physical expression of Motian’s skills to his talents as a composer is Drum Music, a solo CD by pianist Russ Lossing, who played with Motian on-and-off over a 12 year period and has also worked with saxophonist Dave Liebman among others. As weighty in his interpretation as Kikuchi is buoyant in his, Lossing’s unrelenting attack is as dynamic as it is respectful. With Motian’s favorite writing tempo mid-tempo or slower, the 10 tracks are interpreted in high recital fashion. Linear, precise and often magisterial, Lossing strives to extract every nuance out of every measure. A tune such as “Gang of Five” for instance, encompasses basso rumbles, abrasive internal string plucks and soundboard echoes. When the animated theme finally appears so do affiliated variants. A tune such as “Mumbo Jumbo” confides itself to the piano’s lowest registers until jittery syncopation ends it; while “Dance” unfolds a lyrical line and percussive stops simultaneously, with every key stroke and string scrape precisely balanced. Not every track is as slowly paced however. The title tune for instance cascades flashily and kinetically as cumulative chording pumps up the narrative. In contrast, hints of a Latin beat poke through “Fiasco”, with the lively melody rappelling up the scale and key pounding characterizing the finale.

Conceived as an 80th birthday tribute to Motian, circumstances meant that Drum Music appears as a posthumous tribute. But considering Motian’s fragile health in the past few years could there be a premonition in Lossing’s funereal pacing of “Last Call” here? Restrained, romantic and reverberating, the playing – and melody – could serve as a threnody for Motian and his lifetime of work as superlative drummer and cunning composer.

Tracks: Drum: Conception Vessel; Gang of Five; Fiasco; Last Call; It Should Have Happened a Long Time Ago; Mumbo Jumbo; Olivia’s Dream; Dance; In Remembrance of Things Past; Drum Music

Personnel: Drum: Russ Lossing: piano

Tracks: Sunrise: Ballad I; New Day; Short Stuff; So What Variations; Ballad II; Sunrise; Sticks And Cymbals; End Of Day; Uptempo; Last Ballad

Personnel: Sunrise: Masabumi Kikuchi: piano; Thomas Morgan: bass; Paul Motian: drums

—For New York City Jazz Record August 2012