This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.

Jazz drummer Paul Motian recorded a classic series of performances at the Village Vanguard in 1961, playing quiet standards with pianist Bill Evans(ph). These days, Motian still records at the Vanguard and plays slow ballads but with some new wrinkles. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews two recent Motian releases.

(Soundbite of song, "Bird Song")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Paul Motian's tune "Bird Song." Jazz drummers leading their own bands tend to favor intricate rhythms and a brisk and 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 enough to nudge the music on.

(Soundbite of song, "Bird Song")

WHITEHEAD: The odd thing is, Motian's trio album, "Lost in a Dream," is a sort of triple salute to him: from the Village Vanguard, where it was made and where he's recorded for nearly five decades; from ECM Records, where he helped shape the label's own penchant for slow, loose, melancholy jazz; and from his younger side folk, Chris Potter on tenor sax and pianist Jason Moran. 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.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: Saxophonist Chris Potter catches the plaintive quality in the melodies like he's listened to Motian favorite, Joe Lovano. Pianist Jason 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.

The album "Lost in a Dream" salutes the drummer as composer, too, reviving nice Motian tunes of his from previous albums to 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 weird, previous album from later last year. The quintet on "Paul Motian on Broadway, Volume 5" plays mostly standards, if not all show tunes. In that two-saxophone band, the phrasing is so ragged it's eerie, almost like they're rehearsing for the first time. It shouldn't work, but it does somehow. It's haunting like a ghost.

(Soundbite of song, "Midnight Sun")

WHITEHEAD: Johnny Mercer's tune, "Midnight Sun." Those lava-flow saxophones aren't even the eeriest thing about "Paul Motian on Broadway, Volume 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 human mouth.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: The leader's drumming can be a little unnerving, too. Master percussionists often keep several beats or patterns 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.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is a jazz columnist for emusic.com. He reviewed two recent Paul Motian CDs. You can hear a complete concert, featuring Paul Motion with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano, at nprmusic.org.

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