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Paul Motian: Two From An Anti-Drummer

Jazz drummers leading their own bands often feature intricate rhythms and brisk, driving momentum. Paul Motian, with his slow tempos, loose timing and tunes that go with rainy days, is so self-effacing, he's almost an anti-drummer. A little rustle of brushes and the faint boom of a bass drum may be all he'll use to nudge the music on.

Motian's trio album, Lost in a Dream, is a sort of triple salute to the drummer: from the Village Vanguard, where it was made and where he's been recording for nearly a half-century; from ECM Records, where his long tenure helped shape the label's own penchant for slow, loose, melancholy jazz; and from his younger side folk, Chris Potter on tenor sax and Jason Moran on piano. They get how to play Motian's music: Make the melody sing and keep the phrasing loose, but show up on time at crucial meeting points.

Potter catches the plaintive quality in the melodies like he's listened to Motian favorite Joe Lovano. Moran underplays his hand, resisting the temptation to fill up space in the absence of a bass player. Interpreting Motian's melodies, he knows less can be more. Lost in a Dream salutes Paul Motian the composer, too, including nice tunes of his from previous albums, which remind us he's never been much for slam-bam drum features. Even his rare solos take their time.

Listening to the trio on Lost in a Dream sent me back to his previous album, from late last year. On Paul Motian on Broadway, Vol. 5, his quintet plays mostly standards, if not all show tunes. In that two-saxophone band, the phrasing is so ragged it's eerie, as if they're rehearsing the music for the first time. It shouldn't work, but it does, somehow. It's haunting like a ghost.

The lava-flow saxophones in Lionel Hampton's tune, "Midnight Sun," aren't even the eeriest thing about Paul Motian on Broadway, Vol. 5. Many pianists sing along with their solos, no matter how much we wish they wouldn't. But longtime collaborator Masabumi Kikuchi's vocalizations are so unearthly, you may not realize right away that those sounds are coming from your speakers, let alone a mouth.

The leader's drumming can be a little unnerving, too. Master percussionists often keep several rhythms going at once, but Paul Motian may trace a thin watercolor line of rhythm through the heart of a performance, as if he could only play his drums one at a time. It's all part of his quiet crusade against overplaying. There are flashier drummers around, for sure. But few do better at creating a mood.

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Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.