Paul Motian lives in New York City, and he may think of the Village Vanguard, the city’s famed basement jazz Mecca, as his own living room. In 1961, he recorded there with the legendary Bill Evans trio, and he has been going back for weeklong residencies with an array of brilliant bands ever since. If Motian asked Lorraine Gordon if he could come over on Super Bowl Sunday to watch the game, my guess is that she’d buy the onion dip. The Vanguard is Motian’s home.
So when a promising new Motian group — particularly a trio without a bass player — releases a live Vanguard recording, you’d best cock your ear. Lost in a Dream delivers on that promise, beautifully, even breathtakingly.
This new group brings in the tenor saxophone of Chris Potter and the piano of Jason Moran. Potter has been playing with Motian for some time (since at least 1994, when he recorded with Motian’s Electric Bebop Band), and he now seems as fine an extension of the drummer’s melodic sensibility and floating sense of time as any other collaborator. Moran, however, is a new voice in the Motian world, and he is by now a wholly formed and idiosyncratic artist with a decade of group leadership under his belt. Given that Motian’s groups rely on the subtlest interplay in jazz, how would Moran blend in and what new thrill would he bring?
In short: Moran blends in with true grace, and he brings a bracing new voice to Motian’s music. This band — and this recording — is a triumph.
Lost in a Dream is a recording mostly of ballads, new and old and composed by Motian, aside from Cole Porter’s “Be Careful It’s My Heart”. While this means that the bulk of the playing here is slowly paced and lyrical, there is nothing delicate or over-tender about this recording. In fact, as gorgeous as this recording usually is, with Moran capable of lush chording and Potter using a silky tone, the most important quality of Lost in a Dream is the clarity of every last note. Nothing here is filigree or decoration. In its own way, this is a band that builds a steely architecture of necessity into each performance.
“Blue Midnight” is as lovely a ballad as modern jazz has produced. A slow and dramatic arc of melody that moves without cliché, this is a tune that plays out as a single line, without standard repetitions or verse/chorus structure. Motian, as usual, plays more as a colorist than a timekeeper, rattling his brushes in subtle polyrhythm behind the chords and line. Moran proves himself an ideal Motian pianist here, because he develops the harmonies like an orchestrater rather than a mere keyboard player. Behind Potter’s dramatic solo, Moran uses pedal effects to create a crescendo of colliding chords that is much more than mere “comping”.
Moran brings certain idiosyncrasies of his style to the trio in a wonderful way. The necessity for a bass player is obviated, of course, by the pianist’s strong and independent left hand. “Lost in a Dream” begins with just piano and drums, but Moran does not overplay, he just establishes a stabbing groove with his right hand, then supplements it with bass notes when the tenor enters, slowing giving that bass voice more movement. On the more angular composition, such as “Ten”, Moran plays with a Monk-ian stumble and dissonance, but he does it with an organic flow that leads Motian into a lively but still tuneful conversation. This is the kind of freedom that jazz does so well today — unfettered by too many guidelines, but played within the framework of the tune’s initial idea.
This is an ideal context for Chris Potter as well. Potter has the kind of plush tone that allows him play with just about anyone, but he transcends prettiness when his playing partners push him to the edges of tonality. On “Drum Music”, a knotty melody that flops and skitters across odd intervals, Potter plays a quirky solo that has a unique logic, shifting between jagged runs and fluid blues phrases. When Moran tumbles in beneath him, Potter’s tenor plays almost more like a drum than Motian does. It’s a sure and interesting kind of freedom.
For pure Motian fans, this is a recording with a higher than usual proportion of actual drum solos. “Abacus” sets the leader free for a long stretch, and the results are panoramic, with Motian’s small kit becoming a wide-screen tour of any number of mental landscapes. For listeners who may wonder how a drummer could be such a subtle composer, this tune shows how that instrument, on its own, suggests such interesting melodic constructions.
Lost in a Dream faces serious competition, but it should rank high on anyone’s list of superb Paul Motian recordings. For people in the Download-One-Great-Song culture of 2010, “Cathedral Song” is a single track that could convince almost anyone that jazz has something important to add to life. This group’s combination of balladry and excitement, texture and melody, individual personality and group simpatico makes Lost in a Dream a serious standout.