Friday, October 01, 2010

Mystery man: Paul Motian and unfair expectations

A few nights ago I attended a jazz performance that happened to not involve Paul Motian. (As expressed in a previous post, I've been listening obsessively to Motian for a while now, and over the past few weeks, there's been little else that's made a significant dent.) While taking in the aforementioned concert, I found myself mentally indulging in an unabashedly subjective, even unfair appraisal, over and over again: "This is nothing like Paul Motian! Why can't these musicians behave more like him and his sidemen?"

Crazy, I know, but within bounds, because I had attended the show in a social rather than professional capacity. Isn't it strange when you're in the presence of one artist, but your mind keeps drifting back to another? You might feel ashamed, or you might, as I did, give yourself over to it and start to hone a definition of your own aesthetic values. Why is this performance not doing it for me? What do I get from this other that the one in front of me is not providing?

What I concluded was that the missing ingredient was mystery. I had become accustomed to the idea that each note of a jazz performance was a step into the unknown. An illustrious forebear called it the sound of surprise, but how much jazz really provides that? Often we're in head-solos-head territory, swinging along predictably. Anyway, Motian actually does furnish that a lot of the time. Maybe not all the time. His diffuse, rainy-day abstractions certainly have the potential to grow predictable or even oppressive. But at their best, they're all about true exploration: unhurried and absolutely confounding.

Before beginning to write this, I was listening to the title track from the 1985 Motian quintet release Jack of Clubs on the subway. There's an ensemble head; then there's a momentum-halting drum solo; then a swirl of unaccompanied Bill Frisell; then a strange duo tangle involving Jim Pepper and Joe Lovano's saxophones. [Note: Listening back, I realized that these various sections overlap, Venn-diagram-style, so it's really: Motian solo, Motian/Ed Schuller (bass), Schuller/Frisell, Frisell/Pepper.] Just to be clear: This is the first track on the record, the initial thing the listener will hear out of the gate, and what Paul Motian wanted to do, what he felt should happen, was that the quintet should atomize into free-form solos and duos. (For a great breakdown of a similarly puzzling decision, see Chuck Klosterman's Chinese Democracy review.) If you're like me, this decision confuses and delights you, maybe in large part because you have no idea why it's happening. Did the producer second-guess Motian? ("Paul, baby, you know I think you're great, but maybe we should start off with something a little more high-energy or straight-ahead and work our way to this, no?") Did the players? It doesn't really matter; it's Motian's record, period. But as a listener, you ask these questions, and if you're a certain kind of listener—conditioned, say, by hours and hours and hours of Paul Motian—you might begin to relish them, and even to feel that a given performance is remiss for not prompting them.

Anyway, I didn't hear that mystery at the aforementioned concert, didn't feel that nagging "Why in the hell?" (as Nmperign's Bhob Rainey put it so eloquently "I listen for a kind of 'What the fuck?' and follow that"). That said, the musicians I heard live really aren't about that—they may even be the antithesis of that—so I had no reason to expect it, but nevertheless, I couldn't stop thinking about it. What to do with this? Am I imposing unfairly? I guess I'm just saying that jazz which forgoes mystery might never be able to engage me as much as jazz which indulges it, invites it, lives with it. (To get specific: Andrew Hill is probably my favorite jazz musician, and I'm starting to think Paul Motian might be a close second.) Forgive me, non-mysterians like the ones anonymized in this post, but I may continue to come to your shows distracted, staring out the window at some weird, murky sight, like the pictures in my head when I hear "Jack of Clubs."


joel said...

Hank- I know what you mean, since I just recorded an entire album of Paul's tunes for string quartet and 2 guitars. Want to hear it?
Joel Harrison

Clifford Allen said...

Thanks, Hank.

joesh said...

Hi Hank

Enjoying reading your blog, and thoughts on Paul Motian, a favorite in my house also. I'm rather curious to read some of your observations on Andrew Hill as you mention him as a (the) favorite, yet haven't said much else - in comparison to Paul Motian. I'm also very taken with the music of Andrew Hill at the moment and am busy trying to absorb some of his ideas and style ..... amazing sense of floating time, which is also a facet of Paul Motian's music/playing. I think Reid Anderson said that Paul Motian has 'messy precision', which is a nice description. Anyhow, I look forward to reading something on Hill and your listening favorites.

Interestingly enough (whilst on the topic of pianists ad Mr Motian), I recently came across Masabumi Kakutchi and was very happily surprised at what a wonderful musician he seems to be, and from the documentary, also a very warm human being.

Keep up the good work.