Motian in Poetry


Surrounded by axes and horns at the Village Vanguard, drummer Paul Motian was peaceful, yet a locus of immense swirling power. That’s the way it always is with Motian, whether he’s leading his long-running trio with saxophonist Joe Lovano and guitarist Bill Frisell or this guitar- and sax-laden septet. A few ride-cymbal strikes are all he needs to indicate direction, velocity, and flow.

On the Wednesday of a recent week-long engagement, such strikes set off a fuzzy storm of sound—no hurricane, but wildly dynamic. “Endless” was one of two Motian compositions that opened the set and appear on the septet’s Garden of Eden (ECM), its moodiest, most expansive recording. These new tunes charm most via details: the way unisons played by three guitars or two saxes fray from slightly varying pitches and note durations; how Motian implies structure in abstract moments with, say, a brief press roll or a kick on his unmuffled bass drum.

Though he now announces an expanded repertoire, Motian used to call this septet his “Electric Bebop Band,” and even playing some bop-era favorites, he exploited the sonic possibilities of its unorthodox instrumentation. Chris Cheek and Mark Turner voiced the melody of Thelonious Monk’s “Instrospection” together on tenor horns before interlacing fragments of it. The traded fours of guitarists Steve Cardenas, Ben Monder, and Jakob Bro were less call-and-response and more extension of a single statement, personalized through texture and color. During Charles Mingus’s “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” the guitars sounded like a horn section. Throughout, bassist Jerome Harris rarely played a conventional line. Motian kept his drumming concise, and worked like a poet—all phrasing, cadence, and careful choices. On Monk’s “Brilliant Corners,” he led a playful, deftly executed game, alternating straight reads of the melody in hard, accentuated time with slow bluesy drags.

At 74, Motian has forsworn touring: He’ll play only in New York, preferably at the Vanguard. Good for us, I know, but fitting. More than any others, his finely honed groups, their sonics spacious and precise, deserve the Vanguard’s acoustically charmed pie slice of a home.