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Motian Sickness: The Music of Paul Motian: For the Love of Sarah

Ian Patterson By

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Motian Sickness: The Music of Paul Motian: For the Love of Sarah Washington, DC drummer Jeff Cosgrove's exploration of jazz drumming legend Paul Motian's music has been a labor of love. Motian, who passed away in November 2011, sent Cosgrove 29 tunes over the three years this project took to realize. Using traditional bluegrass musicians as a kind of laboratory, Cosgrove chose compositions that best fit the uncommon instrumentation, though there's nothing in the way of Appalachian folksiness about the music. Instead, these avant-jazz/modern classical interpretations lay bare the originality and stark beauty of Motian's compositions.

"Dance" erupts with John Hébert's Charles Mingus-like bass charge and Cosgrove's cymbal-accented bustle making a bold opening statement. Jamie Masefield's mandolin and Mat Maneri's viola trace the melody in unison either side of a short passage of quartet improvisation, one where notes are few and tension is high. The contrast in timbre and sustain between the two stringed instruments, and their close symmetry throughout, whether in shadowy unison or improvising, is one of the most striking aspects of Cosgrove's arrangements.

Washing cymbals, pillowy mallets and rumbling bass imbue "Conception Vessel" with an unrelenting moody abstraction. The main melody released, Maneri and Masefield venture separately, and the melodic arcs they carve share a dark-hued, vaguely classical air. There's an edgy, modern classical feel about "The Storyteller" too, with trilling mandolin almost oud-like. Bowed bass and viola forge deep, brooding harmonics, though resolution arrives gracefully with the final note, delivered by Hebert's bow. Grace and melancholy are closely intertwined on "From Time to Time," with viola's lament and a bluesy mandolin conjuring elegant expressions of a crying soul.

At just under three minutes, the quartet waltz "The Story of Maryam" is the shortest but prettiest tune; it's also a reminder of Motian's preference for mood and texture created through group dynamics, over individual virtuosity. Viola and mandolin take brief, lyrical solos but it's the cheery air of the composition's defining melody that sticks. Masefield and Maneri's longer solos on the nervy "Mumbo Jumbo" never venture far from the central melody, though there's still a pervading sense of improvisational freedom, one mirrored in the individual, though cohesive, paths pursued by drums and bass.

The rather lovely, thirteen-minute "Arabesque" is a dreamy, melancholy-tinged composition. Bass and caressing brushes are sparse, leaving space that frames viola and mandolin's interjections. The spaciousness serves to highlight the close quartet interdependence and the intuitive play from the musicians. Gradually shifting dynamics also characterize "For the Love of Sarah"; the most bop-inspired of the tracks, it is, however, devoid of predictable formula. Two short, atmospheric numbers round the set off; "The Owl of Cranston" has nothing approaching a solo during four minutes of tightly spun unison and counterpoint, whereas "One Time Out" features punchy solos from all, punctuated intermittently, by a group exclamation.

The spirit of the music, a disciplined, collective adventure, would surely have resonated with Motian. Doubtless too, he would have applauded the originality of the arrangements and the verve in the playing. This is a fine tribute to one of jazz's greats, and a vibrant calling card for Cosgrove and these notable musicians.


Track Listing: Dance; Conception Vessel; The Storyteller; From Time to Time; The Story of Maryam; Mumbo Jumbo; Arabesque; For the Love of Sarah; The Owl of Cranston; One Time Out.

Personnel: Jeff Cosgrove: drums; John Hébert: bass; Mat Maneri: viola; Jamie Masefield: mandolin.

Year Released: 2011 | Record Label: Self Produced | Style: Free Improv/Avant-Garde


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