It’s a yeoman’s task to ask a group of strong-willed musicians — players accustomed to calling the shots — to come together as a democratic unit. This heavily credentialed trio managed to do so on the self-titled Nonesuch album it released last year and confirmed that bond Tuesday night at the first perf of a much-anticipated Gotham stint.
The three musicians each maintained their distinct personalities — Frisell waxing wry and puckish, Motian gruff but affable and Carter unflaggingly Zen-like — while remaining locked into the nuances of the others. The trio kicked things off in warm, easy-going fashion with an urbane twist on Jimmy Davis’ classic “You Are My Sunshine,” which Frisell infused with a Wes Montgomery-styled languidness.
Carter took centerstage for the cinematic “Eighty-One,” a tune that unfolded in origami-like fashion, evincing facets of swing, tense counterpoint and an almost Nino Rota-like cinematic vibe. That sense of surprise worked to the combo’s benefit through most of the 75-minute set, but failed it at a few junctures — such as “Abacus,” a nonlinear piece that found all three players orbiting in search of a center that never came into focus.
They fell into lockstep rather nicely by the latter part of the set, however, gliding gracefully in tandem over the measures of Frisell’s “Strange Meeting,” a composition redolent of a windswept Iberian cliff — and one that allowed Motian to step out in stellar fashion, traversing the breadth of his kit with a remarkable economy of (no pun intended) motion.
Set ended on a winsome note, in the form of an airy rendition of Lerner and Loewe’s “On the Street Where You Live.” The chestnut is trotted out so often that it can almost seem like incidental music, but on this evening, Frisell, Carter and Motian infused it with enough oomph to demand aud attention until the fading of the final note.