When pianist Paul Bley, saxophonist Evan Parker, and bassist Barre Phillips were first called together for a session by ECM in 1994, the results were startling to most critics who felt that Parker and Bley were two such dominating personalities that it would be difficult to put them together in such an intimate setting. They weren't counting on the fact that Phillips had worked with both men many times, and despite his own tendencies for the free-flying climes shared by Parker, he possessed an inherent lyricism that when called upon would flow from its source. Indeed, on that date, while Parker and Phillips edged Bley out on ledges he'd not looked over often in the past, he drew them toward the spiritual, intimate center of a lyricism neither had even imagined, let alone explored. All things balanced so well that the trio has become a semi-regular touring band ever since. This date is part of a live concert recorded in the Sankt Gerold Monastery in the Austrian mountains. In addition to deft, insightful, and breathtaking group improvisation, several solo interludes hold as much sway and magic as what the trio accomplish together. The first of the two "Variations" are group pieces. Bley introduces -- perhaps because of the locale -- his interest and depth of knowledge in serial music during the improvisation with Parker playing a modal counterpoint. The mood is relaxed, but the music flows quickly and freely. Melodic ideas and rumbles are put forth by Bley and transmuted into something wholly other by Parker with Phillips acting as a bridge for this seemingly uneasy yet effortless alliance. Deep listening combined with restraint are the keys to this music -- making this band accomplishs. Their combined knowledge of modal and free practice along with Bley's penchant for dynamic and dramatic interplay provide for a foundation of graceful and forceful surprise and challenging listening -- for the musicians, not the audience members. Tonalities are exchanged at a relaxed pace though they turn on a dime and become microtones just as quickly. In the solo pieces, Phillips is first with a gorgeous arco-solo that expresses an interest in improvisation by sustained interval. Parker has three such opportunities, the first of which occurs on "Variation Four," and is a short but explosive microtone study on B flat where skeins of notes are whisked through the horn via circular breathing. Bley's solos are variations on bebop via the Second Viennese school and an open study of closed space with augmented ninths and even twelfths as the spare counterparts to triads in the upper register. But these solo interludes are merely breathing spaces for the constancy of the trio's meta-linguistic interaction. What is so interesting in the manner in which these play together is how they make music about making music. Each player points in the direction of the others with one idea that he knows will open the berth for that idea to be deconstructed musically and from it emerge a new architecture of tone, sound, texture, and color. By concert's end, all one is left with is the desire to hear the show as it happened, as one Sankt Gerold, without variation or interruption. Next to that, this cannot be improved upon. This performance is a watermark in the careers of all three participants and an essential document for the fans of any single member as well as the evolution of the improvising jazz trio.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek