Cardenas Honors Iconic Mentors


Steve Cardenas’ new album is a tribute to Charlie Haden and Paul Motian.

(Photo: ©Anna Yatskevich)

After appearing as a sideman on albums by keyboardist Jon Cowherd (Gateway) and bassist Ben Allison (Quiet Revolution) in the two previous seasons of vinyl releases from Newvelle—the subscription service formed by jazz pianist Elan Mehler and vinyl-loving entrepreneur Jean-Christophe Morisseau—guitarist Steve Cardenas kicks off season three with a leader project titled Charlie And Paul. It’s a heartfelt tribute to two of Cardenas’ mentors: bassist Charlie Haden (1937–2014) and drummer Paul Motian (1931–2011).

With bassist Thomas Morgan emulating Haden’s deep tones and sparse lines on interpretations of “Las Pasionaria,” a Latin-tinged number from the Liberation Orchestra’s 1982 classic Ballad Of The Fallen, and “In The Moment” from 1987’s Quartet West, and drummer Matt Wilson channeling his inner Paul on melodic gems like “Kalypso” and “Asia” from Motian’s 1977 album Dance, the spirits of Cardenas’ mentors hover over this stellar quartet outing that also features saxophonist Loren Stillman.

“Elan and I decided it should be people who played with either both or one of those guys so there would be a connection,” said the guitarist, who was a longstanding member of both Haden’s Liberation Orchestra and Motian’s Electric Bebop Band.

Stillman played on 2016’s posthumously released Liberation Orchestra album Time/Life and on 2009’s Paul Motian and Trio 2000 + One release, On Broadway Vol. 5; Wilson played alongside Cardenas on Time/Life and also on the 2005 Liberation Orchestra album Not In Our Name; Morgan played on Motian’s final album, 2011’s The Windmills Of Your Mind.

“Steve and I have done a lot stuff over the years but we really met in Charlie’s band and we became really close there,” said Wilson. “We’re both Midwestern cats so it always works when we play together; that feel is there. What Steve brings to any situation is a commitment to the music. He can go in so many different directions. He swings, his comping is great, he can turn on a dime and turn up the crank and rock out, so he’s great to have in a band. And it’s fun to play with him as a drummer because there’s a lot of different weight to his sound. It’s not just all thick—he can comp thinly and comp with lines in a great way.”

Cardenas became aware of Motian through his work in the Bill Evans Trio, which he first heard at age 18. His Motian epiphany came later that same year: “It was when I heard Keith Jarrett’s [1976 album] Shades, when I was in my last year of high school. That’s when I was really hit over the head by the beauty of the way those guys play—the openness and fearless and creativity. And then later the trio with Paul, Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano had a really big impact on me. Monk In Motian [1988], which was quite a ways into their thing, was the one that introduced me to that group. And I was, needless to say, floored.”

After spending four years in San Francisco (1988–’92) and two years in Los Angeles (1993–’94), the Kansas City native moved to New York City in 1995.

Two years later, on the recommendation of Pat Metheny, he began playing in Motian’s Electric Bebop Band alongside fellow guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel (documented on 1999’s Play Monk And Powell). He subsequently played on Motian’s 2001 album Europe and 2002’s Holiday For Strings alongside guitarist Ben Monder and on 2006’s Garden Of Eden alongside guitarists Monder and Jakob Bro.

Along with a bristling, Ornette-ish rendition of Haden’s “Pocket Full Of Cherry” (from the Keith Jarrett Quartet’s 1977 album Bop-Be) and a gentle acoustic rendition of Haden’s “For Turiya” (originally a duet with harpist Alice Coltrane on Haden’s 1967 duets album, Closeness), the program on Charlie And Paul features three previously unreleased Motian compositions in the experimental free jazz blowout “Riff Raff,” the swinging “Tangram” and the relaxed country ballad “Prairie Avenue Cowboy.”

“I made a point to choose some material that Paul never recorded before so we could find our own way with them,” Cardenas explained. “With Charlie, I didn’t want to do ‘Silence’ and I didn’t want to do some of Paul’s tunes that are much more well-known. I wanted to find some of their gems that nobody knew about. Of course, people know about ‘For Turiya,’ but it just felt so right that I had to do it. And I also wanted another piece for acoustic guitar. Both Charlie and Paul loved acoustic guitar, so I wanted to get that sound on the record.”

Cardenas started out with a list of 50 tunes by the two prolific composers, pared it down to 20 for rehearsals and finally narrowed it down to 15 when they went into the studio. They ended up recording 11 but could only fit nine on two sides of the 180-gram clear vinyl. (As with other Newvelle projects, the masters revert back to the artist after two years, so Cardenas plans to eventually release a CD including the two extra tracks that didn’t make it onto the vinyl edition.)

Throughout Charlie And Paul, melody predominates. But the album is also marked by the kind of conversational playing that was a signature of both Cardenas mentors. “That was a lot of what Paul and Charlie were about,” he said. “They’re not just backing up the soloists; there’s a conversation in the music, there’s interaction, there’s comments throughout. I love playing that way. I’ve never been comfortable with the idea of me being the cat out front, being the star soloist with the rhythm section backing me up. I’m like, ‘No, I want to face you guys and I want you to do things that inspire me. I want us to inspire each other and play together.” That’s really important to me, and I was fortunate to get the best lessons from those guys.”

“Working on this project with Steve was very special,” Wilson added. “There’s obviously reverence there and all the respect and love that we had for both of those gentlemen, [who were] giants and mentors. What was so great about both of them is their welcoming sound into what they did. They encouraged you to be yourself. So this project was an extension of that spirit of Charlie and Paul.

“We’re all proud and will remain proud for the rest of our lives of being part of that family tree. That’s something I know I value highly, knowing that we came from these people. I think that’s an important lineage that we all value.”

For more info on Newvelle Records, visit its website. DB

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