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Paul Motian Band: Garden of Eden

John Kelman By

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A recent bulletin board poster suggested that "any human being's imagination and creative thinking wanes with age." Considering how many artists in their sixties and beyond remain not only vital, but are creating some of their best work, it's an easy supposition to refute. Drummer Paul Motian is the perfect example—despite some travel restrictions due to health concerns, he's never sounded better.

Since renewing his relationship with ECM in 2004, his activity has been nothing short of remarkable. In addition to last year's superb trio record, I Have the Room Above Her, he's been instrumental on new releases by trumpeter Enrico Rava and pianist Bobo Stenson. And there's more in the can, including a session for British alto saxophonist Martin Speake, also featuring Stenson and bassist Mick Hutton.

For his first release of 2006, Motian has renamed his longstanding Electric Bebop Band as the less specific Paul Motian Band—reflecting a decreased focus on the group's original premise, and greater emphasis on original material. Garden of Eden also expands Motian's unorthodox lineup of two saxophones, two guitars, bass, and drums to an even more uncommon septet featuring an additional guitarist.

Opening with two Mingus tunes might suggest that little has changed. Still, as always, Motian's concept is really anti-bebop. There are moments where individual soloists predominate—and with saxophonists Chris Cheek and Tony Malaby, as well as guitarists Jakob Bro, Ben Monder, and Steve Cardenas, there's plenty of strength to go around. But Motian's arrangements lean more towards collective improvisation, all couched in defined forms that nevertheless feel open-ended and unrestrictive. And with the disc ending on a similar note with Monk's "Evidence" and Parker's "Cheryl," one might wonder what really differentiates the Paul Motian Band from the Electric Bebop Band.

The answer lies in the nine originals—seven by Motian, one each by Cheek and Cardenas—programmed between the album's bebop bookends. What's always been remarkable about this band is its ability to be texturally rich yet atmospheric and spacious at the same time. One might think that having three guitarists would create a potential for excessive harmonic density and the occasional train wreck, but everyone's listening skills are so advanced that things never get cluttered, despite the number of players.

Garden of Eden also proves the malleability of Motian's writing. Motian's tunes range from the maelstrom-like temporal elasticity of "Mumbo Jumbo" to the dark and ethereal "Etude" and the lyrically folksy "Mesmer," where Motian's light but busy playing seems at odds with the more languid phrasing of the horns and guitars. They could easily be imagined played by his trio with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano. There's inherently more activity here, but it shows just how far Motian has evolved as a writer with a distinctive voice that transcends context.

Motian may turn 75 this year, but on the strength of Garden of Eden it's clear that he's in the midst of a musical renaissance; advancing age needn't be synonymous with a dilution of the creative juices.

Track Listing: Pithecanthropus Erectus; Goodbye Pork Pie Hat; Etude; Mesmer; Mumbo Jumbo; Desert Dream; Balata; Bill; Endless; Prelude 2 Narcissus; Garden of Eden; Manhattan Melodrama; Evidence; Cheryl.

Personnel: Chris Cheek: saxophones; Tony Malaby: saxophones; Jakob Bro: guitars; Ben Monder: guitars; Steve Cardenas: guitars; Jerome Harris: bass; Paul Motian: drums.

Title: Garden of Eden | Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: ECM Records


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