Keys to the kingdom



Though jazz, like any other public music, has thrived on greatest hits — recognizable styles and tunes you can whistle along with — its real goal has always been originality. A music of the moment, it privileges discoveries over reproduction of a familiar effect and commits itself to a fascinating challenge: to “make it new,” forever.

On Amaryllis, the new-thinking record from pianist Marilyn Crispell, the sound of jazz piano is given a tender twist — away from Crispell’s high-energy, cascading work with the likes of Anthony Braxton and Reggie Workman and toward a quieter freedom in the company of two of the music’s most brilliant sidemen, bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Paul Motian. The trio format has rarely been explored with such lucidity.

“Voice from the Past,” opening the set, moves directly into the kind of gorgeous suspensions created in 1959 by bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins with the Ornette Coleman Quartet. Crispell’s ringing keyboard enters a kingdom of lyrical gravity, a site where we’re invited to feel our way through solitude. Unhurried, this voice announces the tone of the whole program, which, though it moves through more complex interactions and slightly brisker tempos, never forgets this dark, lovely touchstone.

The title track, “Amaryllis,” is the first of several (in Crispell’s words) “slow free pieces” distributed throughout the session. Though it sounds like a composition, it’s actually a totally spontaneous work capturing in retrospect a whiff of the belladonna lily and its mysterious attraction. Peacock’s “Requiem” follows, with its songlike line and his thick pizzicato solo through Motian’s underbrush. Crispell’s playing has a folksong feel echoing modern classicists Ravel and Barber.

The seduction of Amaryllis is in the way its thematic harvest (great writing by all three players, in particular Motian’s “Conception Vessel/Circle Dance,” Peacock’s “December Greenwings” and Crispell’s “Silence”) nourishes waves of meditative, melodic improvising. From one cut to the next, the inspiration trance continues, stimulating more concentrated focus from your ears than you’ve experienced in a long time.

George Tysh is Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at

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