Marching to the Beats of Different Drummers

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The New York Sun

On Tuesday night at the Village Vanguard, the drummer turned bandleader Paul Motian launched one of the most surprising new bands to hit New York in many a season.

Mr. Motian is among the most significant drummers of the past half-century and a leader of considerable renown. His famous trio with Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell is a regular attraction at the Vanguard and his quartet with Chris Potter played at Carnegie Hall last week. Although the drummer’s new band combines saxophones and guitars in a manner somewhat reminiscent of his Electric Bebop Band of the 1990s, his current octet sounds like nothing I have ever heard before.

The group recorded an album 18 months ago, which is now being released as “Garden of Eden.” The eightmember lineup that took the stage for Tuesday night’s late set at the Vanguard consisted of Mark Turner, tenor saxophone; Chris Cheek, tenor and alto; Ben Street, bass; four electric guitarists – Ben Monder, Jacob Bro, Steve Cardenas, and Jerome Harris – and the leader on drums.


Almost everything this band played was rubato. Many pieces seemed at first to have no rhythm at all, then turned into dreamy soundscapes that could underscore movie love scenes.

The bulk of the pieces were Mr. Motian’s own (though he did not announce any of them to the audience). His writing is reminiscent of Ornette Coleman’s in that it consists of simple melodic lines that undergo all manner of increasingly elaborate variations. The group also played some jazz and pop standards, including Irving Berlin’s beautiful lullaby “Count Your Blessings” in a tenor-driven arrangement inspired by Sonny Rollins, as well as “I Surrender Dear,” the “Lover Come Back to Me” variant introduced by Bing Crosby in 1931, the year Mr.Motian was born. I also recognized some tunes from the band’s CD – including the leader’s hauntingly hummable “Mesmer.”

Most jazz groups consist of a front line and a rhythm section, but Mr. Motian’s band was all over the place on Tuesday night – it was impossible to say who was what or where at any given time. It’s tempting to say Mr. Motian was as much in the front line as the saxophones, but traditional concepts of foreground and background seem irrelevant to this group. The two tenors would move to the front line for a chorus, but just when you got comfortable with that, one or more of the guitarists would take over while the saxophones played accompaniment. The perspective was reminiscent of a Chinese scroll painting in which you can see everything at once.


Still, this is unmistakably a drummer-led band: Mr. Motian didn’t just drive the octet from the back, he led from the front and coordinated from the middle. At times, he seemed to be playing piano-like chords on the toms, or else banging out contrapuntal melodies in the manner of bassist Scott LaFaro – who served with Mr. Motian in the legendary Bill Evans Trio – on his cymbals. In other words, Mr. Motian was all over this music.

Often the band would start out together only to slowly drift apart, with each of the seven sidemen gradually going off into his own sub-spaces. “Mumbo Jumbo,” for instance, began with the two tenors in rough harmony; then one of the guitars took over, playing what could either be an extension of the melody or an improvisation – in this music, the boundaries between the two were blurred. Then the tenors returned, spinning simultaneous variations that were closely related yet distinct. When they finally came back together on the same melody in time for the piece’s conclusion, it felt like order was being restored to the universe.



Up at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, the talented and ambitious drummer and composer Herlin Riley,in a rare gig as leader of his own band, is offering an entirely different take on the drummer-driven band. During Tuesday night’s opening set, Mr. Riley offered hard-driving, engagingly rhythmic, upbeat music in the tradition of the legendary bands of Art Blakey and Max Roach.

Mr. Riley’s quartet features the multireed player Victor Goines, pianist Eric Reed, and bassist Reginald Veal (all fellow veterans of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra). They began the set with two bright and catchy originals from Mr. Riley’s 2000 debut album as a leader,” Watch What You’re Doing” and “New York Walk.” Mr. Riley went on to lead an exemplary set of New Orleans neo-bop in a style reminiscent of his longtime employer (and Jazz at Lincoln Center’s artistic director), Wynton Marsalis.

For his third number, Mr. Riley featured Mr. Goines playing clarinet on Hoagy Carmichael’s ballad “The Nearness of You.” Mr. Goines is gradually developing an original style on the instrument, one that seems more rooted in a saxophonic conception – on the slow love song,he sounded as if he had transmuted Ben Webster’s tenor saxophone sound to the clarinet.

After an original by Mr. Reed in the Caribbean-Cuban-Calypso tradition, the set took an unexpected turn. Earlier this month, another Lincoln Center veteran, trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, wound up his set at Dizzy’s (alongside Messrs. Riley and Veal) with the traditional New Orleans “Bourbon Street Parade”; on Tuesday night, Mr. Riley followed suit with “Royal Garden Blues,” a song associated with the Creole Jazz Band of King Oliver and Louis Armstrong. Mr. Goines took the melody on soprano while Mr. Riley supplied a funky backbeat, but the big surprise was a guest appearance by Robert Stewart, a tenor saxophonist who played with the LCJO about 10 years ago.

Mr. Stewart plays with a big, breathy, raspy sound, and he brought more energy than technique to this tune. His playing was aggressive, stomping, and swinging, but Mr. Goines, still playing soprano, wasn’t about to go down without a fight. As the two saxophones traded fours, they produced some of the gutsiest playing I’ve ever heard at Lincoln Center.

Motian until July 2 (178 Seventh Avenue South, between 10th and Perry Streets, 212-255-4037). Riley until July 2 (Broadway at 60th Street, fifth floor, 212-258-9595).

The New York Sun

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