One of the most remarkable aspects of the late drummer Paul Motian’s playing was its lack of forward momentum, a trait that is skillfully translated by the pianist Russ Lossing in his solo tribute comprised of Motian compositions. Lossing, a player of wonderful technical achievement, largely puts speed and easy fluency on hold here, opting for a crystalline stillness that serves the writing very well. In order to “get” Motian’s playing, you had to put aside many received notions of what a jazz drummer was expected to do. You had to listen carefully, to think in terms of his collegial responses to those with whom he played. His playing, like his writing, was not geared to those who want easy answers in their jazz. So, although Drum Music is inarguably profound and beautiful, it rejects casual listening. Lossing hasn’t merely captured the letter of Motian’s compositions, he’s captured their spirit.
Lossing doesn’t favor one hand over the other, which breaks down the standard “right hand = melody and solo, left hand = chords and bass” that’s typical of most jazz pianists. As a result, a piece like “Conception Vessel” becomes something like a conversation, with either hand capable of initiating or responding to the other. “Gang of Five” could almost be a Motian drum solo, the lower part of the piano blocked and used as a percussion instrument, thumping great oceanic slaps of vibrating bass, and forlorn treble figures on the keys. It’s mournful and moving. “Last Call” has a quiet dignity that Lossing leaves wholly unadorned. It brings to mind Edward McDowell’s “New England Idyll,” short piano pieces written at the turn of the 20th century. The mysterious opening to “Olivia’s Dream” develops into a melancholy minor solo. Every note counts and, as he does on a number of pieces in the program, Lossing moves between the keyboard and the piano’s interior. Right and left hands work independently in “Dance,” creating two complex strands of linear exposition. The pianist’s clarity of articulation is noteworthy here. No matter how abstruse the development of his improvisation, there is an ironclad logic to everything he plays. Drum Music requires close attention. There is no flag waving or gratuitous display of any sort. Russ Lossing is a serious musician interpreting the work of another serious musician. He brings it the gravitas it deserves. It’s the art of a genuinely great pianist, just coming into what promises to be a long and productive maturity.