Joel Harrison: String Choir: The Music of Paul Motian

Joel Harrison has the right idea: When assembling a tribute to Paul Motian’s compositions, don’t use any percussion. No drummer colors a performance quite like Motian, so it’s better to focus all the attention on his other talent. From there Harrison takes the idea even further by arranging Motian’s music for a string quartet of players who can think outside the charts-violinists Christian Howes and Sam Bardfeld, cellist Dana Leong and alternating violists Mat Maneri and Peter Ugrin-to which he adds his and Liberty Ellman’s guitars. The 10 pieces, along with two others closely associated with the drummer, succeed because Harrison gets inside of these already fascinating structures and translates them to another context.

The dual guitars recall the dreamy sustain Bill Frisell brings to his many appearances with Motian. Sometimes, though, Harrison and Ellman create more of a country twang, as during Maneri’s solo in “Etude,” or the 64-second sketch of “Mumbo Jumbo.” The strings expand beyond their standard roles too, with moments where Howes’ fiddle shrieks like a wild alto saxophone (“Mode VI”), or the ensemble blends with the electric instruments to create the timbre of an oboe (“Cathedral Song”). The latter piece features one of the best Bardfeld solos, which is driven by his unique phrasing. “Drum Music” has an especially tense, stop-start head, and the group brings a good deal of depth to the task. Along with a redesigned version of Thelonious Monk’s “Misterioso,” and a version of Scott LaFaro’s “Jade Visions” constructed from the original chart, this album offers a strong appreciation that demonstrates how the veteran drummer’s talents extend beyond his trap kit.