Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

The roundups are here, and the big winner is…the past. In the recent spate of year-end jazz features, archival releases from Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane, Coltrane with his classic quartet, and Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker topped album lists in Down Beat, Jazziz, and JazzTimes, the genre’s three major publications. In the pages of the latter (a magazine to which I contribute), return-to-form live discs from septuagenarians Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter took critic-poll positions No. 4 and 5, respectively. Rollins was even named JazzTimes’ Artist of the Year and featured on the cover of the same issue.

Of course, not every vet receives such a full feting. Paul Motian, another septuagenarian, no doubt deserves jazz-elder status, too. The Manhattan-based drummer/band leader, who turns 75 next month, gigged with Monk in the winter of 1960, sat in with Coltrane at Birdland in 1965, and occupied the drum stool in Bill Evans’ best trio, keeping time on the pianist’s classic Sunday at the Village Vanguard. He’s also collaborated with Keith Jarrett, Paul Bley, and Charlie Haden—anyone who’s anyone, basically, in postbop- and New Thing–era jazz. Yet Motian is unlikely to ever stare back at you from the cover of a glossy.

At least one prominent critic has suggested that Motian’s trio, one of the drummer’s two long-standing groups, is too “casual” to get its due. But perhaps there’s just not enough Behind the Music in the man’s bio. Motian neither burned out young (like Coltrane and Parker) nor lost his way (à la Rollins and Shorter). Though his discography as a leader has no career-making, label-sustaining peaks—no A Love Supreme or Saxophone Colossus—it’s also free of cred-busting, what-was-he-thinking? valleys. Motian’s towering achievement is—yawn—the decade-to-decade consistency of his own records, the first of which, Conception Vessel, came out more than 30 years ago.

That’s not to say that Motian’s career lacks highlights. Last year’s trio disc, I Have the Room Above Her (my own pick for the best jazz release of 2005), is an elegant example of Motian’s lyrical approach to improvisation. Throughout the silvery, sometimes ambient recording, the drummer and his triomates, tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano and electric guitarist Bill Frisell, eschew mannish displays of instrumental prowess. Instead, they build indeterminacy into the mostly Motian-composed tunes by accretion. The band members never really start soloing—but they never really stop, either. The same goes for the players on the new Garden of Eden, an album that is similarly divorced from trot-out-the-chops traditionalism.

That’s no small accomplishment on a disc that features not one but three virtuosic guitarists. Motian, a self-described student of Monk, says that his larger group, a semirepertory septet that used to be called the Paul Motian Electric Bebop Band but is now known simply as the Paul Motian Band, was formed “to destroy bebop.” For Motian, however, that project is hardly violent. The band’s intent, he says, is to “get away from the usual melody-solos-melody-end” configuration of bop. So maybe “dismantle” would have been a better word. After all, depending on what kind of listener you are, the Motian Band’s music can be downright friendly: Part of its MO is to employ instrumentation familiar to those who grew up with the sound of amplified rock ringing in their ears, not just to jazz fans.

Earlier versions of the group boasted, in addition to drums and bass, a frontline with two electric guitars and two tenor saxophones. Garden adds that third, 20-something Dane Jakob Bro, and puts him to work in what is, to a certain extent, a cover band. The album’s 14-cut track list includes two Charles Mingus tunes (“Pithecanthropus Erectus” and “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”) and one song apiece by Monk (“Evidence”), Parker (“Cheryl”), and Broadway composer Jerome Kern (“Bill”). These numbers, three of which are ballads, seem to have been selected precisely because they avoid bop’s knottiest tendencies. This is a record about slackness and tautness, not about the perfect tucked double overhand.

Motian composition “Etude,” for example, centers on a simple, folklike melody. As Liberation Music Orchestra saxophonists Chris Cheek and Tony Malaby lay down synchronous—and vaguely accordion-toned—lines, the rest of the music seems to float and drift behind them. Ditto on most of the originals here: the slightly more upbeat “Mesmer,” the slightly more downcast “Garden of Eden,” the little-of-both “Prelude 2 Narcissus.” Indeed, a majority of Garden could be accurately described as free jazz. But not the paint-peelin’, sax-squealin’ stuff you hear on those late-period Coltrane records. Like Room, Motian’s beautiful, tuneful latest is free in the sense that it’s liberated from rigid structure.

Chalk it up to Motian’s drumming style, a unique approach that implies more than it states. With the exception of his rowdy, traditional solo on “Evidence,” the drummer takes a gentle, almost restrained approach to his instrument, dancing around each beat with utmost care. It’s hard to imagine the guy ever breaking a sweat, much less a stick or drumhead. Jerome Harris, Garden’s acoustic bassist, responds to this rhythmic challenge with ambience rather than audible riffs. (Skip to “Manhattan Melodrama” for his sole near-solo.) And when not echoing the tenors, guitarists Bro, Steve Cardenas, and Ben Monder behave similarly, flitting about their frets in much the same way that Motian flits about his kit. On “Bill,” the three do so all at once.

Obviously, this is not a casual undertaking. But neither is it boldfaced enough for an audience that is more than content with its heroes. As an instrumentalist, Motian shows little inclination toward crowd-pleasing directness. He does, on the other hand, have a penchant for simple, charming melodies—Garden is full of them. And if the measure of a musician’s greatness is an instantly recognizable voice, Motian is no doubt one of the genre’s elite. Most jazz critics will probably neglect to include him on those year-in-review lists a few months from now. But give ’em a few decades and see what happens.CP