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On Garden Of Eden, Paul Motian's Electric Bebop Band shortens its name and lengthens its stride to present a new artistic agenda. Recalibrations of the bop and hard bop repertoires stay on the bill, but only in a supporting role: the main event now is original material, most of it composed by Motian. (Nine of the fourteen tracks are originals, seven of them written by Motian, plus one each from saxophonist Chris Cheek and guitarist Steve Cardenas.)
It's an occasion, simultaneously, for celebration and a little regret. Regret because the band's trademark reinventions of '40s and '50s standards are high-water masterpieces of modern music, and a CD chock full of them would still leave an appetite for more. On Garden Of Eden contemporary Oliver Twists will have to be satisfied with Mingus' "Pithecanthropus Erectus" and "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," a combination twelve-minute overture and farewell, plus Monk's "Evidence" (three and a half minutes) and Parker's "Cheryl" (two minutes flat) as a very brief finale.
The two Mingus tracks are pure bliss, stone downloads of the year, with Motian daring to replace the composer's signature torment with serene, Zen-like acceptance. They are played with such delicacy and understatementand despite the multiplicity of guitars (three) and saxophones (two), such spaciousnessthat the listener is forced to lean mentally forward to appreciate them. That effort is well rewarded. "Pitchecanthropus Erectus" here suggests that man's fall will come with a whimper rather than a bang, but its brooding intensity has never sounded more dangerous. "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" brilliantly replaces the original's bravura tenor saxophone lament with softly voiced, collective remembrance.
Bittersweet lyricism also shapes the nine originals which make up the centrepiece of the album and which are to be celebrated as well, though somewhat less rapturously. As composers, Motian, Cheek and Cardenas are complementary to the point of being practically indistinguishable, and, with the exception of Motian's perkily kwela-esque "Mesmer," their shared aesthetic inhabits the same tentative and wraithlike landscape as Tomasz Stanko's Litania, in particular that album's opening "Svantetic." There are worse things to be reminded of.
Most of these tunes are gentle collective meditations lasting about three and a half minutes, which the band don't so much sink their teeth into as nibble at, much as you would a dish of amuse bouches. Stylish and imaginative though the new music is, you're left with a nagging feeling that perhaps something is being fixed here that ain't broke to start with, and that the real meat and potatoes lie elsewhere.