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Whirlpool: Dancing on the Inside

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The intimate folkloric sophistication that was the métier of drummer-composer Paul Motian is a tricky beast, too easily prone to becoming precious or banal in the wrong hands. By seamlessly adding cornetist Ron Miles to their all-originals second disc, the Motian tribute trio known as Whirlpool twirls past these pitfalls via their generosity of spirit and the deep roots of their homespun grace.

The generosity is evident in the compositions. The three songs by guitarist Jeff Swanson and the title track from drummer Charles Rumback generally provide the best settings for the interplay between Miles and fellow horn player Caroline Davis on alto, while the four pieces from Davis tend to allot more of the spotlight to Swanson and Rumback. Swanson is the most Motian-like composer, his songs somehow completing a whole narrative arc from placid, elliptical pieces. Bookended by a pair of simpatico ballads, the nine-minute “Remedies” is the disc’s centerpiece and highpoint, using a descending guitar motif and Rumback’s rustling accents to frame empathetically gorgeous exchanges from the horns. Midway through the luminous tranquility, Miles squeezes juice from some mashed notes and Davis nudges the entropy with her own skewed tone, then emits a fragile high note while Miles circles beneath.

That’s about as dramatic as Whirlpool gets, and in context it’s plenty enough. Davis composes more straightforwardly-“The Crew” conflates the different angularities of Monk and Tristano, and “Right Where” is an unabashed love song with Davis doubling on vocals-but the beauty of this ensemble is in its Midwestern restraint. (All three members were longtime fixtures on the Chicago jazz scene; Davis has since moved to New York.) The title of the disc furthers the notion that still waters run deep beneath the stoicism-down where the whirlpools keep things fresh.

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