There is a kind of jazz that might be labeled “the music of eccentricity”. Expert in its way but not interested in technical display, oddball but smart, the music of eccentricity revels in its asymmetry and unlikeliness. Like a very pretty girl wearing ugly glasses, it is comfortable with its contrariness—but then it charms you anyway.
The patron saint of the music of eccentricity would have to be Thelonious Monk, whose quirky melodies were more likely to stumble than to sprint, a fact that made them both memorable and extra-interesting on a technical level. Among contemporary musicians, drummer Paul Motian—known for his approach to Monk compositions, indeed—is one of our most gorgeous eccentrics. A drummer known for playing melodically, Motian makes the most of being off-kilter.
Live at the Village Vanguard, Volume II is second batch of tunes from Motian’s stand at the legendary New York jazz basement in December of 2006. The “Trio 2000” is Motian, plus Larry Grenadier’s bass and Chris Potter on tenor saxophone. The “Plus Two” are pianist Masabumi Kikuchi and either Greg Osby on alto sax or Matt Manieri and viola. A combustible, potent mixture, as the first disc proved—swinging, fiery, strange, a discovery.
The second installment delivers, happily, more of the same. This music has a go-its-own-way joy that will seem peculiar to jazz novices, but it is the kind of thing that keeps the music alive and relevant for aficionados. Motian’s group is never predictable, even though it trades in fairly standard jazz form: a melody, a string of solo improvisations over the rhythm section, a reprise of the melody, all played with a loose sense of rhythmic displacement. Ever-present is a sense of conversation between the players, regardless of who may be soloing. Because Motian and Grenadier rarely lock into sustained, typical grooving patterns, the entire enterprise is in a continual state of surprise and interplay.
“Fiasco” boasts a melody that sounds like a twelve-tone pattern and a moody exercise. The wide intervals and jarring delivery serve as the template for solos that follow no obvious harmonic pattern. Sounds forbidding, but the improvised statements are intriguing, particularly as Potter ‘s smearing licks are answered in clusters and patterns by Kikuchi’s piano and, ultimately, joined by Manieri’s earthy viola. The viola and tenor sound perfect together, with the lower stringed instrument standing up to jazz action more heartily than a violin typically does. Manieri’s own solo is built on beautiful, quick-fingered patterns that inspire Kikuchi to more jabbing accompaniment. (Manieri also appears briefly on “If You Could See Me Now”, reprised here from the first disc but with no soloist.
Most of the tracks, however, feature the piquant and quick alto saxophone of Greg Osby. Here again, the group plays an unlikely standard in “Till We Meet Again”, and they combine a remarkable “straight” reading of the melody with accompaniment that stutters and shambles in a contrapuntal way. As on Volume I, Kikuchi proves invaluable as he spars with the soloists before making his own engagingly fragmented statement. The pianist is featured in front of just the trio for most of “Sunflower”, but you may miss the back-and-forth with the more singing melodies of the horns. A diet of Kikuchi alone is a craggy enterprise best experienced in small portions.
Best of this batch of tunes might be “Ten”, which jumps quickly into a duet between Kikuchi and Potter without bass or drums. This long passage is suddenly and certainly brilliant, with Potter crafting melodies that sound like long-lost Aaron Copeland one moment and gusts of Stan Getz the next. When the applause for this dies down, Osby enters with a series of idiosyncratic squiggles and turn-abouts that also draw Kikuchi’s comping. Motian, the bandleader, has the wisdom to let this great music play out even without his own instrument as part of it.
There is a wealth of other distinctive musical moments on Volume II, moments that are more-often-than-not spurred on by Motian’s rich sense of rhythmic space, jagged swing, and thoughtful sparring. Grenadier is essential as Motian’s counterbalance beneath the soloists, and Potter remains a wonder of jazz versatility—a player who can add something integrated to any situation but who still finds ways to sound like himself. He is probably the least “eccentric” player on the record, yet he seems continually in the creative mix.
Fifty-five years into Paul Motian’s jazz career, the most elegantly eccentric drummer in the music is still a daring delight. Again, Live at the Village Vanguard, Volume II reminds us the best music is often the least obvious.