Paul Motian/Bill Frisell/Petra Haden/Thomas Morgan – The Windmills of Your Mind – Winter & Winter 910 182-2, 52:14 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
(Paul Motian – drums; Bill Frisell – electric guitar; Petra Haden – vocals (except tracks 1, 4, 7, 10, 12, 14, 16); Thomas Morgan – bass)
Trying to keep up with Paul Motian’s extensive discography is demanding but well worth the investment in time. The Winter & Winter label has made the chore easier by offering Motian’s back catalog on JMT Productions (Motian began his association with that label in 1988) and just as importantly continues to issue new Motian material. Case in point is Motian’s 80th birthday celebration album, The Windmills of Your Mind, a sublime 16-track, 52-minute collection of instrumentals and vocal songs recorded in September, 2010 with guitarist Bill Frisell, singer Petra Haden (one of Charlie Haden’s three daughters) and bassist Thomas Morgan. Fans should note this is a limited-edition, hardcover CD (get it while you can), which is also available in a limited-edition, high-fidelity 180-gram vinyl pressing [this review refers to the compact disc].
The musicians are no strangers to each other. Motian and Frisell have collaborated together before, including a trio recording and a series of live dates at the Village Vanguard with saxophonist Joe Lovano, and another trio setting with bassist Ron Carter. Motian worked with Morgan on Motian’s 2008 project, On Broadway, Vol. 5 and both artists form the rhythm section on Samuel Blaser’s new outing, Consort in Motion. Frisell and Haden released a duet endeavor in 2005 (the Gershwin’s “I’ve Got a Crush on You” from that self-titled album is reprised here in a shorter summary with the same guitar/vocal approach). The quartet crafts a low-key set of tunes with the stress on close-quarters affirmation of their respective talents, emphasized by producer Stefan Winter’s application of live to analog two-track, with no digital manipulation in the post-processing. What you hear is what you get, and what you get is timeless music with deft use of space, movement and appeal.
The material is a balanced mix of Broadway hits, pop standards and some well-chosen Motian originals. Many of the pieces are as familiar as mom’s apple pie and thus they could easily have been an exercise in overly recognized redundancy. How many versions of the title track or “Lover Man” can be heard and still retain a sense of freshness? However, Haden’s translucent, gently redolent voice sounds intuitive and instinctive on these unvarnished and untarnished tracks. Haden is mostly associated with alt-rock (she co-led the Los Angeles-based indie pop/rock group That Dog in the 1990s) and her a capella efforts (for example, in 2005 she replicated The Who’s conceptual rock album The Who Sell Out using just her voice). Here, she imaginatively moves through the standards, singing smoothly over Morgan’s rich bass and Motian’s shuffling brushwork.
Haden and the band shine during a country-whispered translation of “Tennessee Waltz,” a hushed tale of purloined romance; and on an illuminating version of “Easy Living” (where Haden’s voice and Motian’s cymbals float in a conversational exchange) and a subtle rendering of the Gershwin’s “I Loves You Porgy.” Frisell gives Haden unobtrusive but beautiful support on an unhurried adaptation of the lover’s lament “If I Could Be with You” and an easy-going and amiable interpretation of Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn’s “It’s Been a Long, Long Time.”
Haden sits out on seven cuts. The record opens and closes with two alternate takes of Motian’s melancholy and understated but poignantly-picturesque waltz “Introduction,” initially performed on his trio excursion It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago, a 1984 production with Frisell and Lovano. Then there is the rural-rooted “Little Foot,” a nimble Motian number highlighted by his witty brushwork and Frisell’s equally droll fretwork. Motian’s lithe, jazzy (but too brief) “Backup” showcases the trio’s chemistry and camaraderie. Frisell and Motian return to their shared backgrounds on Motian’s lovely and condensed “Trieste” (a lengthier take can be found on Motian’s 1984 quartet release The Story of Maryam, which included Frisell) and a sprightly rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.” The Windmills of Your Mind is an instantly affable affair well suited for fans of Haden, Frisell or Motian. Find it while you can.
1. Introduction (1)
2. Tennessee Waltz
3. The Windmills of Your Mind
4. Let’s Face the Music and Dance
5. Lover Man
6. It’s Been a Long, Long Time
7. Little Foot
8. Easy Living
9. I’ve Got a Crush on You
11. I Loves You Porgy
13. If I Could Be with You
14. Wednesday’s Gone
15. I Remember You
16. Introduction (2)
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