In 2005, Paul Motian returned to ECM as a leader after a long hiatus. He reassembled his partnership with guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist Joe Lovano. The album they released, I Have the Room Above Her, was ecstatically reviewed across the globe. The trio members, who hadn't recorded together as such since 1984, showed a tremendous empathy and a sense of harmonic invention that defied "jazz" categorizations. On Time and Time Again, the band's sense of space, color, and texture reaches outward in a more pronounced manner. Motian's compositions dominate this set, as they did the last one. His idea of a music that moves, floats, and hovers -- that evolves gently -- is singular. His partners here do not react; they seem to abandon themselves into the world of sound the drummer wishes to create. Motian doesn't play a pulse style of drumming here for the most part, and Lovano, who is one of the tradition's great adherents, uses his horn as a ballast of texture and melody. Frisell's use of technology and ear for detail, nuance, and delicacy don't fill space so much as create it. His playing against Motian's slippery, mercurial cymbal and snare work expands lyric possibilities for the listener, even as Lovano grounds the melodies in textured color. The album's opener, "Cambodia," is a case in point. Motian and Frisell appear to wander into the tune haltingly, carefully, creating a dimension. When Lovano enters a minute or so later, the "song" begins to shape itself, and the listener takes in the spatial dimension as well as the beautiful melody created by Lovano and Frisell. Motian's painterly style flows through the middle, allowing room for spot-on improvisation while never losing the core of the tune.
Motian's compositions resemble songs in this way. They find their way home, but take the listener far from it for a good while -- inside a cut that's four and a half minutes long, this is remarkable. The track "K.T." uses song form in a more recognizable fashion. Lovano plays a line that returns to its origin in a circular fashion and Frisell turns the theme into something else entirely as Motian uses the guitar as a foil, gently and continually slipping through the melody at double time or triple time, while grounding the tune all the same. This isn't impressionistic music; it's expressionistic. Emotion is the root of melody, but emotion is complex. It reveals itself in many ways. Motian plays accents, pointing to the center. "This Was Nearly Mine" by Rodgers & Hammerstein inverts song form and stretches it to the breaking point while never losing the root, never losing its lyric in the subtle, gentle washes of cymbals and guitar. There is great humor here, too. The understanding of Thelonious Monk's "Light Blue," taken at a slower tempo, reveals the harmonic complexities in the composer's music, while never losing its sense of the blues and swing. The improvisation that takes place here is wonderful. Motian sticks the beat in hard swing mode and then moves in and out of time, underscoring the shining head in the tune. What the Motian-Frisell-Lovano trio does best is play a music that requires deep listening. Motian writes that way, where intuition is important and listening more so -- because, after all, these song forms he creates are subtle, and require an approach that is at once gentle and adventurous. They reveal themselves slowly, but never unpleasantly even at their most angular. Time and Time Again reveals that this trio has more room, more vistas to explore; here they create a new kind of "art song," one that stretches the frame of the definition, while at the same time expanding it immeasurably. This is one of the bravest trios to come along in the last 20 years.