Seven years after the unprecedented ECM debut, Nothing Ever Was, Anyway, and three years after the stellar Amaryllis, pianist Marilyn Crispell gives listeners another trip down her ever deepening cavern of mystery and imagination. Teamed once again with drummer and composer Paul Motian and new bassist Mark Helias, Crispell builds an even sturdier tension bridge between her increasing focus on harmonic and melodic interplay and dynamic intensity. The polarities are the immediate way into this set, which is so full of ambiguities and spectral presences one could say it is haunted. Crispell's physicality is held in check for most of the proceedings here, but it is ever present. There is a tautness to these performances that is held firmly by the steady, sinewy rhythmic direction of Helias (who contributed two fine tunes to this set). Crispell wrote three pieces for this recording, all of them signifying a direction the ensemble travels in a labyrinthine fashion for a time. These are underscored and elaborated upon in her choice of six of Motian's tunes covering some 30 years. In fact, the title track, which feels like a Crispell signature, was composed by Motian. What sets Storyteller apart from most recordings out there is its depth of feeling and the unveiled manner in which it is displayed.
In the tempered pieces such as "Wild Rose," "Alone," "Flght of the Bluejay," and "The Sunflower," one can hear how Crispell's reliance on depth and instinct has carried her music to an entirely different level. There is no interest in anything but getting the tunes across, digging into them and exposing the secret heart in each to the open air. Certainly the force that has been displayed on her earlier recordings and those she has made with Anthony Braxton contains an emotional aspect in the angular sound worlds she articulates, but here music and emotion are inseparable and become their own poetic syntax and utterance. Crispell is spinning narratives in her forays into complex harmonic investigation. Her woven interplay with Motian, where each musician accompanies as well as anticipates and challenges the other, is remarkable on tunes such as the strident "Cosmology 1" and "Play." The album's final cut, Crispell's "So Far, So Near," is far from a summation. In its wrenching emotion, restraint, and elegance it not only challenges critical notions of who she has been and what she has accomplished, but leaves such questions superfluous and shallow. Beginning with a bass solo by Helias, it skeletally unfolds in a purposeful yet open way, leaving lines to trail off and into one another rather than end or point to specific next steps. Space and nuance are given careful consideration by Motian as he opens up more terrain for Crispell's investigation of a muted yet multidimensional color pattern that is as seductive as it is hypnotic, as tender as it is adventurous within its determined, deliberate parameters. It is the utterance of shadow, of sense impression, of the complex and whispering heart of the music itself. Storyteller is another triumph for Marilyn Crispell.