Ed Motta – Perpetual Gateways
(MustHaveJazz / Membran, 2016. Review by John L Walters)
Ed Motta’s music can be an acquired taste. This is not because his music is especially challenging or ‘difficult’ – though his use of harmony is far from simple. It’s more that Motta inhabits a world of his own making which seems far removed from the everyday machinations of the post-internet music industry, from the commercial landscape of pop music and from the day-to-day concerns of many listeners and musicians.
I guess that Motta, like Charles Mingus, like Martin Scorsese, Byron or Shelley is a kind of romantic, who yearns for times and places he is too young to have experienced at first hand. And, like a portrait painter in a time of abstract expressionism, or a machine code programmer trying to make sense of Facebook, he is an outsider who is bursting with inside information, the sort of person outlined by Brian Wilson in ‘I Guess I Just Wasn’t Made For This World.’
Motta has well honed skills as a singer-songwriter-instrumentalist, which makes him a rare artist in an age of delegators and generalists. Furthermore he appears to have a brain and intellectual appetite the size of a small, inhabitable planet, in possession of a vast amount of knowledge about cheese, wine, jazz, stage musicals, comic books, arcane instruments and the ‘Yacht Rock’ culture he explored in the album AOR. (This 2013 masterpiece lovingly recreated West Coast sounds of the late 1970s in Rio studios, with guests such as Jean Paul ‘Bluey’ Maunik from Incognito and David T. Walker, and hip English lyrics by Rob Gallagher aka Earl Zinger.)
For Perpetual Gateways, Motta has set his controls for the heart of jazz-rock – with an emphasis on the jazz side of the hyphen. He hired musicians who were around at the time of the music’s heyday, pianists Greg Phillinganes and Patrice Rushen and flutist Hubert Laws, and younger guys such as bassist Cecil McBee Jr and trumpeter Curtis Taylor, who – like Motta – appear to have ingested that West Coast sound in their parents’ vinyl). The producer is Kamau Kenyatta, known for his fine work with Gregory Porter, and the album has the form of an LP: one side is Soul Gate; the other, Jazz Gate.
Side one opens with Captain’s Refusal, a jazzy yacht-rock song with nifty horn punctuation and close mic’d lead vocal tracking reminiscent of George Duke’s mid-70s albums. Phillinganes’ electric piano solo sneakily quotes from ‘Girl From Ipanema’ as if responding to Motta’s musical joke, and there is a splashy, flamboyant ending by drummer Marvin ‘Smitty’ Smith.
Hypochondriac’s Fun pairs bizarre lyrics with a perky, rolling groove that has a hint of Michael McDonald-era Doobie Brothers – it swings and rocks at the same time. If you listen on headphones, Motta’s vocal is almost in your ears, a whispering presence both calming and slightly weird. There’s a barnstorming acoustic piano solo by Phillinganes – you can imagine the other session players applauding after the take.
Good Intentions has an understated keyboard minor chord vamp and groove from the Donny Hathaway / Stevie Wonder school, with an arrangement (by Motta himself) that locks so neatly with the rhythm track that the horns can be mixed high. More classy acoustic piano (by Patrice Rushen) and drums that make you wish Marvin ‘Smitty’ Smith had played on Donald Fagen’s sweet but somewhat underproduced Hold On To That Slinky Thing (on Sunken Condos).
Reader’s Choice is Motta’s take on a torch song, with a lovely chord sequence, and a fine trumpet coda by Curtis Taylor in which he channels the most dramatic soul ballads he’s ever internalised. However the English words (Motta’s own) are somewhat opaque. Even if Motta’s songs make Elton John’s repertoire sound tepid, Bernie Taupin has nothing to worry about.
The Soul Gate A-side comes to an end with Heritage Déjà Vu, the most explicitly Latin track on the whole album, with a nice turnaround between upbeat yacht rock and a jazzy chorus montuno that invokes the sound of Brazilian-themed jazz-rock albums from the 1970s: early Return To Forever, Flora Purim, Airto, George Duke and Earth Wind and Fire.
The Jazz Gate second side of Perpetual Gateways starts with Forgotten Nickname, another breezy ballad with magnificent flute by Hubert Laws.
The Owner is a hustling, up-beat hard bop song with colourful drums, piano vamps and trumpet/sax hooks that channel a 1960s Horace Silver influence. There’s an exuberant acoustic piano solo by Rushen plus more Taylor on trumpet and an arrangement by Kenyatta – it’s proper, full blooded jazz!
A Town in Flames opens with a blare of free-ish horns and cymbals that evoke Motta’s Aystelum [REVIEW] (which itself was reminiscent of the intro to Steely Dan’s Everything Must Go). The track then hustles along like crazy and features another terrific solo by Laws.
I Remember Julie is an uncompromisingly forthright jazz piece driven along by a busy, ultrafast 4/4 swing time feel – like that of the best mid-60s jazz quartets and quintets. Motta demonstrates his vocal chops with a melody that could plausibly be a vocalese version of something from Miles Smiles.
Overblown Overweight, with its fleet 6/4 pulse, takes us down the path of ‘righteous jazz’ re-trodden so successfully by Gregory Porter, Kamasi Washington and a host of newer bands. There are great vocal harmonies, a roaring tenor sax solo by guest Charles Owens, and an electric piano solo by Rushen. Motta treats us to some scat singing. Defying its title, the track sounds lean and sleek.
Although Perpetual Gateways deliberately pushes buttons for those who loved this music the first time round, its strength lies in what Motta has done with the idiom to make it new. At a time when much popular music sounds rigid, arthritic, auto-tuned and overproduced, Perpetual Gateways is a generous, authentic treat – fast on its feet and bursting with energy.
LINKS: Barbican review from May 2015
Ronnie Scott’s live review from 2013
John L Walters’ Guardian feature on Ed Motta