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Paul Motian - Garden of Eden

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Artist: Paul Motian

Album: Garden of Eden

Label: ECM

Review date: Feb. 5, 2006

Drummer Paul Motian keeps a dance card most other septuagenarians would envy. Gigs are plentiful and his stock has risen sharply thanks to a steady stream of recordings including last year’s celebrated I Have the Room Above Her by his long-standing trio with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano, also on ECM. An extension and a departure, Garden of Eden is generating a similar groundswell of support as the critical laurels continue to accrue.

The album's instrumentation is similar to that of earlier Electric Bebop Bands, though it's slightly overhauled and expanded. Motian keeps the two-tenor framework of his past ensembles intact, with Tony Malaby and Chris Cheek fielding the roles beautifully. He augments the usual two guitar set-up with a third, enlisting the formidable trio of Steve Cardenas, Ben Monder and Jakob Bro. Jerome Harris, playing what looks like an amplified acoustic bass guitar, supplies an unobtrusive bottom end. Everyone undergoes the usual ECM audio filters that yield watercolor patinas and rounded edges, but the results aren’t so much cloying and emasculating as they are haunting and ultimately enchanting. Pristine digital engineering divides the instruments into clean spatial corners that allow for easy delineation of who’s doing what and when. It’s especially helpful in the case of the guitarists, whose tones and styles of phrasing sometimes intersect. Combined with the sustained capaciousness of the group’s dynamics and Motian’s slow burn arrangements, there’s little danger of a pile-up. That sense of order and space is both an asset and an impediment to the album as a whole.

Motian also opens up the songbook, positioning a selection of choice standards to serve as bookends to a middle section largely composed of singles-sized originals. The opening arrangement of “Pithecanthropus Erectus” presents a symposium on the match between Motian’s methods and the overarching ECM influence. There's plenty of urbane mentholated cool and laid-back, spacious swing. Shimmering and gliding together and apart with gilded amplification, the guitarists create the illusion of band twice the dimensions. “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” also comes wrapped in soft swaddling, but traces of a racy shade of lipstick seep through in the lush tenor phrasings.

At the program’s tail end sit terse versions Thelonius Monk’s “Evidence” and Charlie Parker’s “Cheryl,” each outfitted with a bit more bite than the openers thanks to Motian’s combustible drumming. In between, the originals, penned mostly by the leader, segue lubriciously one to the next. Among them, the floating rubato fanfare “Mesmer” and the spectral title ballad stand out. I found the preponderance of plush atmospherics somewhat off-putting at first, but repeated trips reveal a warmth and craftsmanship to Motian’s stratagies and preferences that becomes increasingly hard to dislike. And his drumming is just as amazing as ever.

By Derek Taylor

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