Even in jazz, the most fluid of all music, there are many drummers who act primarily as the keepers of rhythm, the pulse and heartbeat of the band. Then there are drummers like Paul Motian who play their kit with all the romantic self-expression of a pianist, a dancer, or a painter.
At 75 years old, Motian is a true giant in jazz who started out playing bebop in the mid-‘50s and went on to be instrumental in shaping some of the key developments in post-bop, from Bill Evans’ classic early ‘60s trio and Charlie Haden’s radical free-jazz behemoth, the Liberation Music Orchestra, later in the decade, through Keith Jarrett’s American Quartet in the ‘70s, to dates as a leader with ECM in the ‘80s, and his own Electric Bebop Band in the ‘90s.
This new band picks up where the latter outfit left off, with a unique line-up featuring three electric guitars (Steve Cardenas, Ben Monder, and Jakob Bro), two saxophones (Chris Cheek and Tony Malaby), and Jerome Harris on electric bass joining Motian in the rhythm section. It also continues his fascination with bop, with the set book-ended by classics of the genre. The disc kicks off with fairly straight, albeit rather dark and moody, readings of Charles Mingus’s “Pithecanthropus Erectus” and “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”, and ends with a brief but rip-roaring run through Charlie Parker’s “Cheryl”. Set within this relatively conventional framework, what happens in between is simply astonishing: eleven shimmering performances of mostly original numbers, delivered as serene and dreamlike free jazz with the emphasis on tone and texture.
“Etude” begins with a simple, dawn-like fanfare, all three horns slowly awakening into the sun, as Harris’s bass throbs and Motian’s brushwork sighs across cymbals and skins like shifting desert sands. It’s followed by “Mesmer”, which takes a simple melody, reminiscent of Albert Ayler’s faux naïve folk tunes, and repeats it over and over with joyful insistence while bass and drums pulsate underneath, never approaching a recognisable rhythm, but nonetheless racing ahead with irresistible momentum. These two numbers set a tone that plays out over the next forty minutes or so in a collection of short tunes between three and five minutes long that never succumb to extended displays of technique, but make succinct statements of intention and end just as the listener is beginning to apprehend their form.
Motian’s playing is loose and free throughout, seeming to propel the music like breath, an intangible presence that seems to do as much by implication and suggestion as it does by actual application. Yet, there’s humour in his technique too, as on “Endless”, where tiny, recurring fragments of swing keep punctuating the pulse like a bop drummer struggling to get out, or the title track, which ends with the hint of a restrained, hesitant groove that never quite comes to life.
The ensemble playing is a revelation. Solos are brief and elusive, and always played against a backdrop of complementary shades—as on an achingly beautiful rendition of the old Jerome Kern show-tune “Bill” in which Tony Malaby’s sax carries the melody while his colleagues apply painterly dabs of colour behind him. Elsewhere, there are echoes of some of Motian’s previous work, with Ben Monder’s distant, liquid guitar on “Prelude 2 Narcissus” sounding not dissimilar to the work of former Motian collaborator Bill Frissell. It’s no criticism of Monder, but rather recognition of both the huge shadow that Frissell casts over most modern jazz guitarists, and the particular kind of limpid beauty that Motian’s compositions call for.
This album seems to communicate something of Motian’s love-hate relationship with bebop. Yes, he has absorbed it into his very soul, and can never fully leave its embrace. Yet he knows that there is so much more he needs to say. It is this conflict that has led him to create this work of daring introspection. In a world where most of his contemporaries have long ago turned their backs on this kind of vulnerability, Motian has followed his impulses, laid his soul bare and, in the process, created a modern masterpiece.