Paul Motian Band: Garden of Eden (ECM 1917)

Garden of Eden

Paul Motian Band
Garden of Eden

Chris Cheek tenor and alto saxophone
Tony Malaby tenor saxophone
Jakob Bro guitar
Ben Monder guitar
Steve Cardenas guitar
Jerome Harris bass
Paul Motian drums
Recorded November 2004, Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Paul Motian was nothing if not unpredictable, and on Garden of Eden he degausses the jazz landscape not for the first time. The album represents a headlong dive into bebop roots, but also a tangling of their pathways. More than his refashioning, however, it is the instrumentation that holds the most surprises. In addition to bassist Jerome Harris (previously heard alongside the legendary drummer on Bill Frisell’s Rambler), Motian welcomes not one or even two but three guitarists (Jakob Bro, Ben Monder, and Steve Cardenas) and tenorists Tony Malaby and Chris Cheek (also on alto duty) for a session that is equal parts comfort food and new wave. Interestingly enough, the former comes from Motian’s newer tunes, while qualities of the latter infuse the tried and true.

Two Charles Mingus tunes open the set with a stage-setting contrast of temperatures and climates. “Pithecanthropus Erectus” finds Motian in a state of subtle swing, spearheading cool, spacious pockets of force. Beneath tasteful soloing from Cheek and chromatic flourishes from Malaby, Harris works his groove-mind, even as the guitarists kindle the music’s inner glow. Despite, if not because of, the assembly, such progressive tunes seem to float, while the leisurely crawl of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” is far denser due to its high emotional thread count. Through its crosstalk of guitars and reeds echoes a graceful photosynthesis.

Motian’s snare is profound in its variety. A sound at once hollow and resonant, it begs attention, a light visible in the thickest fog. It is central to his craft not only as a player, but also as a composer. In this role Motian excels beauteously with seven viscous originals, in particular the title track, which moves like globules in a lava lamp and, along with Jerome Kern’s “Bill” (from the musical Show Boat), paves the album’s dreamiest thoroughfares. Other wonders: the slipstream “Mesmer,” in which Motian spackles highlights with his cymbals, characteristically insistent yet accommodating; the spider-webbed guitars of “Prelude 2 Narcissus” and “Manhattan Melodrama,” each a radiation of moonlight; and “Etude,” which has put on some shadows since its appearance on 1982’s Psalm.

Cheek and Cardenas each contribute a tune. “Desert Dream” is the saxophonist’s modal vision, a haunting piece of cartography that side-winds into the guitarist’s “Balata.” In both, themes act as concave bookends to even more concave departures. The wave takes us back to finish, looking to Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence” and Charlie Parker’s
“Cheryl” for closure. Both manifest the full tactility of bebop, thus cinching one of Motian’s finest records on any label.

Is this where jazz is going? Hardly. This is where jazz already was. It only took a genius like Motian to hear it that way. A crime not to savor.

One thought on “Paul Motian Band: Garden of Eden (ECM 1917)

  1. Thanks for this. You are right to focus on Motian’s sound, as the master paid so much attention to this himself. The clarity of Paul’s voice — on his instrument, in his composition, and as a generous leader of devoted younger musicians — continues to illuminate, and will do so as long as we have access to precious recordings such as these.

    And thanks for lending a unique voice to the collective dancing about architecture. “Through its crosstalk of guitars and reeds echoes a graceful photosynthesis.” Nobody else would think to write such a thing. I’m glad you did.

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