THE album Memoirs, first released in 1989 but now reissued on the Italian Soul Note label, is an outstanding trio session cut by three masters, all of whom have left us over the last decade.
Paul Bley (1932-2016) was from Montreal. As a young pianist he was recognised by his great co-citizen, Oscar Peterson, for whom he deputised in his local club gigs, and found himself playing with legendary horns like Charlie Parker and Lester Young.
When he moved to New York he threw himself into the jazz scene — his first album was for the Debut label owned by Charles Mingus, and features the bassman and the great drummer Art Blakey accompanying him. It was a debut indeed, and sparked a jazz life of experiment, tradition and audacity which continued for six decades.
The drummer Paul Motian (1931- 2011) was born of Armenian parentage in Philadelphia. His early years found him in the US navy during the Korean War and in 1954 he was part of Thelonious Monk’s quartet.
Five years as a drummer with Bill Evans in his trio established him as a musician whose whispering cymbals and complex rhythms took him far beyond the drummer’s mere timekeeping role, and his long musical life of non-stop innovation made him one of the truly great jazz percussionists.
Charlie Haden (1932-2016) was born in Shenandoah, Iowa where he became a child singer in his family’s country singing group. His move to Los Angeles with his acoustic bass and his crucial role in the Ornette Coleman Quartet from 1958 onwards with key albums like Change of the Century (1959) and The Shape of Jazz to Come (1960) began a revolutionary music in jazz with Haden’s own socialist politics well to the fore, set down in the formation of the Liberation Music Orchestra with Carla Bley (once Paul’s wife) in 1959. His long life of radical music was completed by the final LMO album Time/Life: Song for the Whales in 2016.
Haden’s oaken bass opens the title piece, with Motian’s skittering brushes and Bley’s narrative keys, as if the diverse events of the three full lifetimes are bonded in one. Bley’s piano sprays like a sonic fountainhead over his confreres’ notes, prompting them like the musical griots that they were to tell out loud their sound-stories.
Certainly Motian’s memories must have been powerfully provoked by his old maestro’s tune, Monk’s Dream. Haden’s twanging strings touch the old master’s heart with the purity of their resonance, and Bley, sounding very much himself, employs Monk’s melody to expound the way in which his piano story is his, born in Montreal, Quebec rather than Rocky Mount, North Carolina, yet both finding the Apple to make their lives in music.
Haden’s tune Dark Victory follows, steeped in anxious musing, with Bley’s notes of trepidation beside the resonating tension of Haden’s earthen bass.
It is a contrast with Ornette Coleman’s own Latin Genetics, its theme full of optimism as Haden’s strings bounce, his memories going back three decades.
This is the Hour is Motain’s take on the nostalgic wartime song that Vera Lynn sang a million times, Now is the Hour. There is a sadness and menace to a familiar theme that worries and lingers as Bley plays out the tune over Motian’s swirling brushes and Haden’s blood-driven pulse. It precedes Bey’s own Insanity which prompts the listener to expect the melody of Over the Rainbow, but it doesn’t come and instead there is an improvised trio performance of sheer invention.
The melody of Haden’s new Flame strikes through Bley’s lucid keys, his crystalline notes dancing on the tip of Haden’s bass and Motain’s softly ringing cymbalism. Haden’s solo sounds as if it is emerging from the trunk of a great hollowed tree, while through Motian’s Sting a Ring his vibrant drum solo begins, the timeless clock chiming on.
Haden’s son Josh was present in the Milan recording studio so Blues for Josh was for him. Haden plunges out a solo before Bley enters, searching and finding swing and a boppish mood.
The finale is the ironic Enough is Enough, for it never was with these three. Bley starts unaccompanied, the melody begins and the trio transforms into one of a powerful jazz embrace, the timbral equivalent of the brotherly clasp on the sleeve cover: three prime sound-makers, one eternal sound.