Since his halcyon days as drummer for the legendary Bill Evans trio, Paul Motian has consistently pushed the boundaries of jazz. Working mostly in small groups with the likes of Keith Jarrett, Joe Lovano, Bill Frisell and Charlie Haden, Motian has helped liberate percussionists from their role as simple timekeepers by employing a style and phrasing that uses tempo as a starting point, not an end in itself. In the process he’s produced an invigorating body of work (more than a dozen albums as a leader) that steers clear of post-bop clichés and instead evokes the subtleties of mood, atmosphere and texture.
His latest release, the ironically titled Holiday for Strings (Winter & Winter), is no exception. With a new lineup of musicians working under the banner of Motian’s Electric Bebop Band (Andres Christensen on electric bass; Chris Cheek and Pietro Tonolo on tenor and soprano sax; and Ben Monder and Steve Cardenas on guitar), he has produced a moody, melancholy album that nonetheless offers rich rewards for the patient listener. Motian has said in interviews that he wants to avoid “pushy” solos and instead have musicians on the same instrument play together. That approach is apparent on the opening number, “Arabesque,” a Motian composition in which Cheek and Tonolo engage in a kind of sonic dance; one leads with a dominant theme, the other follows and shadows his counterpart. The result is a darkly beautiful kind of symbiosis. As always, Motian floats around the melody, using brushes and cymbals to embellish on the themes established by the horns.
Two more Motian compositions - “5 Miles to Wrentham” and “Morpion” – seamlessly follow, both literally and figuratively, the dreamy, rainy-Sunday-afternoon tone set by “Arabesque.” Indeed, at least in the first part of the album, Motian seems intent on creating a suite of pieces, a thematic whole greater than the sum of its parts. Even “Luteous,” a Monder composition, echoes this mood. It’s not until the up-tempo “Look to the Black Wall” (a Motian number faintly reminiscent of “Giant Steps”) that the band gets any kind of boppish groove going; here, Cheek and Tonolo let loose in a good old-fashioned sax duel. The guitarists follow in turn.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the group is at its most conventional when covering two Richard Rogers standards, “It Never Entered My Mind” and “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.” But if these covers aren’t particularly innovative, they’re certainly pretty; the saxophones play with a restrained elegance on the former, with the guitars weaving an intricate yet graceful tapestry around them. “Morning” is a fitting coda to the album; it’s a mere wisp of a number, a simple statement of the melody and little more. Yet, in its understated way, it manages to capture the poignant spirit that informs the rest of Holiday for Strings.
Personnel: Steve Cardenas - guitar; Ben Monder - guitar; Paul Motian - Drums; Pietro
Tonolo - tenor and soprano saxes; Chris Cheek - tenor sax; Andy
Christensen - electric bass