The Paul Motian Octet at Birdland, NYC
New York City, New York
January 31, 2008
It is always a treat to be able to hear a group live that made a deep impression on record. This band was basically that on Motian's release Garden of Eden (ECM, 2006), with a few additions and subtractions. Instead of three guitarists, there were two, Ben Monder and Steve Cardenas, stage left. Both of the saxophonists from the recording, Tony Malaby and Chris Cheek, were stage right. Jerome Harris, playing an acoustic electric bass was present right rear, but also present on this occasion were string bassist Thomas Morgan (who was subbing for Ben Street) center rear, and Mat Maneri, who played fiddle left rear. As expected, Motian and his drum set were front and center.
The sound of the group, as defined by the recording, is hazy, or gauzy, especially on the Motian originals, created by the overlapping of the guitars and the reeds both within and between their respective sections and by Motian's abandonment of a strict pulse in favor of a percussive aura. The hazy sound was further enhanced by the two bassists, although Morgan, as well as Maneri, did not play all of the time. After the gig, Maneri told me that this was his first time playing with this group and that he was just trying to fit in with the (loose) arrangements that already existed. The same was probably true for Morgan, as he too looked like he was picking his spots.
The set, played before an audience that was very attentive but only half-filled the house, started with Charles Mingus' iconic "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," which is also on the record. The sound was a bit ragged at first, and it took a while for the sound man to get the right mix as well as for the energy between the band and the audience to become focused. Once it did, the music was grand, with an interesting mix of Motian originals, a couple of older standards and a couple of bebop tunes.
Monder is an amazing player, and his facility, with virtually no extra motion, allows him to react and lead with instantaneous reflexes. Despite using a tone with chopped highs and hence sounding recessed, his playing drew attention away from the sharper-toned Cardenas, who nevertheless got in some good licks along the way.
Malaby and Cheek shared their musical space more evenly, since both men play multiple horns, with Cheek staying mainly on baritone when Malaby played tenor and switching to alto when Malaby moved to soprano. Both players were inspired during their duo playing as well as their solos.
Harris was very active, playing melodic bass lines underneath the band, which allowed Morgan to hold down the more standard bass duties. Maneri's contributions added to the general mix and fattened the sound, although he did trade solo statements with Motian during one of the bebop numbers, bringing smiles to the drummer.
Motian, on record and live, is usually a very subtle player, but on this night, he was forceful beyond any reinforcement from the soundboard. He was always listening, pushing and pulling the band as he responded to what they were doing. They responded to him, and he was a joy to watch.
The set contained some surprises, including the old warhorse "I Surrender, Dear," with its immediately identifiable melodic contour, and a version of "Satin Doll" that presented the tune completely by implication. Everyone dug into the bebop swingers and had a good time.
Motian's Octet has an unmistakable identity and sound that filter into everything they play, making for a wonderful set.