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Less Is More for Paul Motian

But sometimes more works, too

Paul Motian was the drummer in the Bill Evans Trio of the early 1960s, Evans and Scott LaFaro's co-equal in song-based, improvisational epiphany. Yet everything written about the group's four Riverside LPs over the decades might lead you to believe that Motian was just along for the ride. When those classic albums were new, the word most commonly employed to describe his efforts in support of the pianist and bassist's roving harmony and counterpoint was "unobtrusive"—no fainter praise for a drummer in an era when bandstands quaked under the brunt of Elvin Jones's cataclysms below John Coltrane.

So how did this alleged bystander become the imposing presence heard on his own albums since the late 1970s, including the new Lost in a Dream (ECM), recorded at the Village Vanguard early last year and introducing the latest edition of his trio, with pianist Jason Moran and tenor saxophonist Chris Potter? A convenient explanation—perhaps too convenient—is that between leaving Evans and joining Keith Jarrett, Motian worked regularly with pianist Paul Bley in various small groups whose ultimate goal seemed to involve tempering free jazz's excesses of sound and fury by scaling down its maximalist impulses.

For Motian, this meant absorbing a lot of Sunny Murray to go with his foundational Max Roach and Kenny Clarke. Murray once likened his persistent cymbal chatter behind Albert Ayler to "the continuous cracking of glass." Along with adding highlight colors to that limited tonal palette, Motian drew on the entire bebop stylebook of paradiddles and pirouettes that Murray had either renounced or never mastered. But that wasn't all, because Motian also seemed to take a tip from Thelonious Monk. Using silence as a photographer or painter would negative space—to give added definition and depth to drum patterns that were both a rhythmic complement to solos and independent melodic phrases in themselves—he showed that a discontinuous percussion accompaniment could be just as good. Maybe even better.

Motian (left) and Jason Moran, setting a path
John Rogers/ ECM Records
Motian (left) and Jason Moran, setting a path

In hindsight, one could argue that Motian was already doing something along these lines with Evans, albeit within the dictates of a tempo he eventually abandoned and at a conversational whisper. But the group's hushed intimacy precluded drum solos that might have put the matter in sharper perspective, as LaFaro's aggressively virtuosic bass solos did for his departures from traditional accompaniment. Not that Motian has ever seemed much concerned with soloing, anyway, even on his own albums. His only solo as such on Lost in a Dream comes at the beginning of the aptly titled "Drum Song," almost 45 minutes in; given the way the live set has been tensing to a crescendo—beginning with two numbers similar to each other in their church-mode underpinnings and their sense of vague disquiet (theme music for Michael Haneke, should he ever decide to go hardboiled)—the first harrumph of Motian's bass drum carries a sundering inevitability.

"Drum Song" seems to climax two previous numbers that have grown increasingly agitated—whether this is the exact order in which the set went down at the Vanguard or a tribute to producer Manfred Eicher's narrative sequencing is finally irrelevant. Amid the wild applause when it's over, following a heated game of Trane-and-Elvin between Potter and Motian (and crashing clusters from Moran), someone in the audience lets loose with a relieved "Whew!" It's as if the crowd has been holding its collective breath till then, fearful of intruding. Fine though they are, the remaining two performances—the folksy, Ornette-ish "Abacus" and the graceful "Cathedral Song"—come off as anticlimactic. Then again, encores inevitably do.

Motian is a colorist, not a timekeeper. He doesn't set a tempo behind a soloist or mark the chorus or even so much as imply a basic beat. This can result in irreconcilable differences in a conventional rhythm section with players close to his own age (79 last month)—witness his failure to click with Hank Jones on a pair of albums by Joe Lovano a few years ago, or with Ron Carter on an '06 record with Bill Frisell. But he does set a path, if not always a straightforward one, for improvisation, and the players willing to follow him tend to be younger, including Moran and Potter on Lost in a Dream (and Lovano and Frisell themselves in a previous edition of the trio). Moran's own affinity for Monkian dissonances and gaps make him Motian's perfect match. And Potter, a superior technician whose licks can outrace his thoughts, meets the drummer's challenge with what might be his best recorded work so far. His upper-register cry is not just deft but moving, and if it occasionally echoes Coltrane's or Jan Garbarek's, it's Coltrane without the breast-beating of most saxophonists under the influence, and Garbarek without all the Hamlet.

This Motian trio—which figures to convene as irregularly as the earlier one with Lovano and Frisell, given that both Moran and Potter also front their own bands—shouldn't be confused with the Paul Motian Trio 2000+, an amorphous ensemble (you're never quite certain who's a regular member and who's a +) that records for another German label, Winter & Winter. Except for Irving Berlin's "Be Careful, It's My Heart"—offered as a breather of sorts midway through—Lost in a Dream consists entirely of Motian originals: The most finely crafted is "Casino," whose suspense and thrust recall both Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman" and Miles Davis's "Flamenco Sketches." Trio 2000+'s On Broadway, Vol. 5, released last summer and featuring saxophonists Loren Stillman and Michael Attias, bassist Thomas Morgan, and Japanese pianist Masabumi Kikuchi, is the ECM album's mirror opposite—all standards after the opening "Morrock," which is essentially a concerto for the 70-year-old Kikuchi, the only bandmember close in age to the leader (lovely voicings, if only he'd stop with the Keith Jarrett–like groaning).

With even Frank Loesser's "Sue Me" (from Guys and Dolls) treated dolorously, the tempo throughout On Broadway is just short of funereal—made to seem even more so by Motian's fast sticks and brushes' arhythmic counterpoint. Just as it was with Monk, it's always fun to hear what Motian has in mind in dragging an old song into his own sphere, and even though "Just a Gigolo" isn't going to yield any new wrinkles not already fully explored by Monk and Louis Armstrong, a gorgeous but neglected Jimmy McHugh song called "A Lovely Way to Spend an Evening" benefits greatly from the application of what can only be described as leisurely tension.

The most diverting soloist here is Stillman, whose pellucid tone and deceptively slack phrasing immediately identify him as a Lee Konitz disciple with plenty of ideas of his own. But the date's real heroes are Morgan and Attias, both of whom I'm used to hearing in much freer settings. On ballads like the ones here, liberating drums from strict timekeeping shifts the responsibility of maintaining a steady tempo to bass, and Morgan shoulders the additional burden as gracefully as Motian himself did in holding down the bottom for Evans and LaFaro back in the day. And it was a stroke of inspiration on Motian's part—testimony to his acumen as a bandleader—to assign "Something I Dreamed Last Night" and "I See Your Face Before Me," melodies full of delicate longing and implicitly feminine in their point of view, to Attias's whiskered baritone. Embellishing a pretty melody is no longer the emotional outlet that it was for earlier generations of jazz musicians, and even with Stillman adding a touch of double-time wanderlust on the bridge, this "Something I Dreamed" won't stop you dead in your tracks the way both Miles Davis's 1956 version and Jeri Southern's lispy version from four years earlier still do. But it sure as hell stays with you—or why would I be mentioning it now, almost a year after its release?

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