Drummer Paul Motian has worked himself into some of the most important piano jazz of the past three decades, with Bill Evans in the 60’s, with Keith Jarrett in the 60’s and 70’s and with Paul Bley seemingly forever. Now with the support of the European boutique label Winter & Winter, Mr. Motian has the chance to demonstrate that his coloristic, intuitive and resolutely not-on-the-beat approach to percussion suits a fairly astonishing range of musics. This fall, we get two new albums, the self-descriptive Paul Motian and the Electric Bebop Band Play Monk and Powell and Chansons d’Édith Piaf , by Tethered Moon, the recently formed outfit of Mr. Motian, pianist Masabumi Kikuchi and bassist Gary Peacock.
The album devoted to those two emotionally disturbed giants of bop-era pianism, Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, is the more accessible and, I think, the stronger of the two. It’s also something of a Zen jest, an homage to two pianists by a drummer intimately linked with the piano trio format that doesn’t actually have a piano on it. Instead, Monk and Powell are translated into double electric guitar lines played by Kurt Rosenwinkel and Steve Cardenas, double tenor sax lines by Chris Cheek and Chris Potter, with electric bassist Steve Swallow thrown in for good measure. It’s a talented group of mostly young nontraditionalists, and they’re audibly thrilled to merge their sounds in the service of this drum lion in winter. Not that you can really tell who’s playing what, but that’s part of the charm of this album in which material that’s either overfamiliar (Monk) or textbook bop (Powell) shimmers with strange, opalescent and, well, electric textures. Occasionally, as on “Boo Boo’s Birthday,” the band lacks the biting articulation to bring Monk’s syncopations to life, but more often they find their own parallel-universe language, as on Monk’s “San Francisco Holiday,” where the guitar solo has an almost rockabilly flavor.
French chanteuse Édith Piaf, “the little sparrow,” is regarded as the quintessence of broken-wing romance, so it’s fitting that she receives a jazz abstraction at the hands of Mr. Motian and Mr. Peacock, two-thirds of the classic 60’s trio of pianist Evans, a man who knew something about bleeding hearts. The third member of Tethered Moon, Mr. Kikuchi, is a little more problematic. His echoes of older Gallic cafe piano styles are deft, but he’s overfond of glacial tempi and disjointed chording (I realize this is considered the height of Euro-jazz good taste) and of background groaning, as if 70’s-era Keith Jarrett or the park-bench bum from Aqualung had wandered into the studio. But I don’t mean to complain. Yes, Piaf, if she were still with us, might upon hearing this album hurl herself off the balcony, or take another lover. But Chansons d’Édith Piaf has its exquisite moments, the first tune alone, “L’accordéoniste,” providing a six-minute journey from atonalism to cabaret to swing. Mr. Motian’s cymbal splashes and irregular bass beats are the parade that even such dead and disparate folk as Monk, Powell and Piaf can march behind.