A trip to the Vanguard can feel a little like a pilgrimage- the place basically looks the same as it has for many years- only a few pictures on the wall seem to change. Everywhere there are references to all the amazing albums made there. It seems doubly so when the Motion/Frisell/Lovano trio play there. At this point, their two week run at the end of every summer is often their only one in the states, and over thirty years they have built a reputation as on of, if not the, best small group in jazz.
So when tenor saxophonist and longtime Motion collaborator Bill McHenry walked on the stage with his horn, it felt like going to a high Mass and seeing someone with a yamulkah on the altar. No explanation was ever given, and the band went through an hour of its typical music- several Motion originals recognizable from their albums, as well as "Good Morning Heartache", Body and Soul", and "Misterioso". But my concert companion and I were more than a little jarred by it. (I don't know if this was a one night thing; the Vanguard website still lists Lovano for the whole run)
The music, was needless to say, different. Both Motion and Frisell are angluar, even sometimes jagged players, and Lovano's big gruff sound and long, full twisty lines have always been a great counterbalance, connecting thread. McHenry has a slightly smaller, darker sound, and plays in short, jerky bursts more than lines, which gave the music a feeling of a lot of the same thing. Early in the set was very effective- it was obvious that everyone was listening tremendously hard, and the interplay and ideas kicking around were remarkable. And of course, Frisell and Motian are old hands, and can toss off brilliant music together in their sleep. But as the set went on Motion and Frisell seemed to move more towards how they would play if Lovano were there, and it left big holes in the music, all rough and no smooth. McHenry is a very, very good player, and to his credit I never once felt like I was listening to someone play like Lovano. And perhaps further into the run, they'll establish more common ground.
I'd be interested to hear who knows what, and if Lovano will be back for any of the run.