On the year of his 75th birthday, Paul Motian has released Volume 4 in his ongoing On Broadway series. This time his group, Trio 2000 + One, features saxophonist Chris Potter and bassist Larry Grenadier, augmented by pianist Masabumi Kikuchi on five of the thirteen tracks and vocalist Rebecca Martin on the remaining eight. No matter that not all of the song selections are associated with Broadway: all are staples of the American Songbook, ranging from the torchy "Everything Happens to Me" to the elegiac "Last Night When We Were Young," from the poignant "Never Let Me Go" to the melodramatic "Brother Can You Spare a Dime" and the just plain campy "In a Shanty in Old Shanty Town."
Are these interpretations best thought of as serious, minimalist "performances," or as illuminating "deconstructions" of musical texts that have become obscured by over familiarity and cluttered settings? Both Potter and Martin, whose vocal quality is reminiscent of Broadway star Bernadette Peters, provide ample evidence for the former conclusion, with strong and complete readings of the material.
In fact, Chris Potter's intimate knowledge of the songs and singular command of his instrument (no saxophonist is more effective at connecting the upper and lower registers of the horn) practically insure that no stone is left unturned in mining the melodic-harmonic possibilities inherent in this material. On the other hand, Kikuchi's insertion of the occasional melodic fragment as a departure point, together with his insistent use of the sostenuto pedal, moves his tracks toward atonality and abstraction, though on neither "Never Let Me Go" (second version) nor "I Loves You Porgy" can he deter Potter from referencing the songs' melodic and chordal sequences in their totality.
When Kikuchi has the tune all to himself, as in "Last Night When We Were Young," the effect of the non-musical vocalizations with which he accompanies himself is frankly eerie, as though he were a medium "channeling" the song rather than performing it. In fact, I'm reminded of the dead man who, in Kurosawa's film classic Rashomon, is ultimately called upon to speak the truth about his own death through the use of a medium. Just as the jury in Kurosawa's film learns that even dead men can lie, the listener of Kikuchi's interpretation of Harold Arlen's song may have serious doubts about the source of its inspiration.
As for the rhythm section, Motian maintains meter but eschews a conventional two-beat feel as well as 4/4 swing, preferring to punctuate and highlight movement rather than establish and articulate it. Grenadier's role complements the leader's approach, though in most measures he is careful to place one of his notes on, or close to, the downbeat.
Each of the tracks has something to offer, whether as a revelation or a reminder of songs that, over the course of Broadway's lengthening history, have become part not only of Motian's experience but also of public consciousness. At the same time, the somewhat limited textures and repetitious tempos of this 66-minute program will most likely discourage some listeners' attempts to digest it in a single sitting. In fact, from the opening "The Last Dance" to the closing "How Long Has This Been Going On?" there's an unmistakable sense of entropy, as though Motian's answer to the finale's question is an unmistakable "too long." The paradox, then, is that these tired tunes continue to receive periodic resurrectionsin spite of and because of retirement parties such as this.
Personnel: Paul Motian: drums; Chris Potter: saxophone; Larry Grenadier: bass; Masabumi Kikuchi,
piano; Rebecca Martin: vocals.