Saturday, March 23, 2013
Songs of themselves: A Tribute to Paul Motian
Tribute concerts, or themed musical gatherings of any kind, come lugging a lot of baggage. What you hope is that they achieve some sort of lift-off, that at some point, you can set aside the "significance" of it all and just listen. That the musicians can get carried away, so that the same might happen to you, the listener.
I'm tempted to throw out a superlative (ahem, "Best tribute concert I've ever seen"), but that means less than to say that there are moments from last night's Paul Motian tribute concert at Symphony Space that I don't think I'll forget. Here are some of those:
Billy Hart and Andrew Cyrille's duet. As a drummer, I generally disdain mult-drum-set situations. A lot of the time, I just don't think they sound very good. This, though, was just poetic. On the surface, its appeal had very little to do with Paul Motian. I think that is completely okay. Hart and Cyrille are peers of Motian; they know that "tribute" doesn't always signify some sort of obvious allusion to. What the two drummers did, is they got up there and played together, for about eight minutes or so. It was tremendously exciting, not just because it was forceful, kinetic, sometimes loud, but because it was all those things and also an uncanny feat of listening. Cyrille sat down at his set first; Hart walked onstage and gave him a little shoulder squeeze from behind, speaking into his ear. They were both smiling. We don't know what was said, but since we heard what came next, we more or less did know. What I remember about the duet is how crisp it was, how clean and just deadly precise each drummer's ideas were. They overlapped, they traded; sometimes, for brief flashes, it was sort of a soloist and accompaniment thing, with Hart marking texture on the hi-hat while Cyrille went off. It was "free" but it wasn't jarring in the slightest. It just cohered, like a good short story. These two just sat down and did it, both players sounding exactly, unmistakably like themselves. Two master drummers, taking care of creative business. It was at once so graceful and completely ass-kicking. If there was anything Motian-y about it, I guess it was that—the willfulness of it, the authority, the license to just stand up and make something.
Masabumi Kikuchi's solo turn had something similar. Most of the pieces on the program were Motian favorites, identified in the program. Above the line announcing Kikuchi's unaccompanied appearance, though, it just said "TBA." Much like Hart/Cyrille, he just walked out there and did it, but in his own strange, quietly luminous way. My God, who is this man? My sense is that many were asking each other the same question during the sort of stunned applause that followed his performance. I wish I had a more exact recall of exactly how his improvisation sounded, but then again, that wouldn't be very Motian-y. It was a ripple, a stirring, a twinge. The thing that I loved about it was, while it was essentially a "ballad"—quiet, sparse, at certain moments heartbreaking—it was not merely pretty. It had a searching feeling that was real. There was other gorgeous "chamber"-style playing that went on last night. (The Matt Mitchell–Tim Berne duo was a killer in this vein) But none captured that innate Motian mystery more than this, that sense of ear-caressing beauty combined with the uncertainty that you're not on steady footing, that the going is rough, that the sensation of serenity is going to have to be somehow earned. Kikuchi's growly vocalizing was all a part of this. It was hard to imagine the performance without it. What was easy, was to understand why this man was, in many ways, Motian's pianist of choice. I've been listening a lot to Sunrise, but I can't wait to listen more, and to really dig into to the Tethered Moon material. (Ratliff's profile and Iverson's interview are essential, btw.)
Of the more orthodox performances—and I don't say that dismissively; I just mean to say "The performances where the musicians more or less played Motian's music in a Motian-influenced style"—my favorite might have been the Bad Plus with Bill Frisell, Joe Lovano and Ravi Coltrane. Frisell and Lovano were, please understand, the heart and soul of this evening. They were onstage a lot, together and separately, and they were always gracious—at the ends of pieces, you'd see Frisell beaming and bowing toward his collaborators, as if to say, "Thank you for doing this—with me but for Paul"—and always (especially in the case of Lovano) going for it. During this particular turn, the matter at hand was "Abacus," played in that sort of classic, drunkenly marching, smeary-parade-music style that some Motian work gets at, where everyone is stating the melody together while at the same time gleefully coloring outside of the lines. This was a tribute to the songfulness of Motian, to the aspect of his pieces that, to paraphrase something Joe Lovano told me, made you want to play them for hours, just trance out on them, cycling the melody over and over, decorating it a little, maybe, but mostly just living with it, letting it roll off your tongue. The Bad Plus were perfect for something like this, because, as I have written before, they are true stewards and connoisseurs of melody. Dave King approximated that sort of stumbling Motian free time without sounding slavish, and Reid Anderson and Ethan Iverson laid out this sumptuous carpet—the song, or a version of it, waving and billowing. I remember that Frisell was loud—not aggressive, but far from the delicate-ness he displayed during a lot of the other sets. I remember that Lovano was, as usual, completely inside the song, yet completely in control; authoritative, brawny, but listening, not just letting it fly. I remember that Coltrane was more reticent, but almost more stunning. His control over the horn was something very special, but beyond that, it was really the sense he projected of humbly serving the music that impressed me. He was there for the song, as were all the rest of the players.
I would say the same of so many of the others who were there. I loved watching Joey Baron and Matt Wilson play, sensing that they were simultaneously having a blast and were maybe just very slightly awed by the occasion, by the act of occupying the chair of someone who projected such authority, effortlessness and style. Both of them found their zone and lifted off, Baron in a version of "Dance" with Frisell, Lovano, Billy Drewes and Ed Schuller, and Wilson in spectacularly entertaining "Drum Music" finale, during which the 20 or so musicians onstage seemed at times bewildered but then rallied for a sublimely together group theme statement. Again, just celebrating the song, letting it blare out.
Or letting it diffuse into the room like a scent, as was the case during a Frisell-led guitar choir, with Jakob Bro, Steve Cardenas, Ben Monder and Jerome Harris. This was a little mini meditation or seance. "Paul loved guitar so…," Frisell said by way of introduction. It's a cliché to say of these tribute events that the subject in question "would've loved" such and such a bit, but I say that of this performance without hesitation. It was a tribute to the aspect of Motian's music that was a sort of license to be okay with just texture, just atmosphere, to not feel the compulsion to officially "begin playing"—that thing that happens in jazz right after the head is over and the solos begin, which can sometimes make you feel almost dejected that the "song" part of it all has, for the time being, evaporated—but to just commune. Frisell and Lovano's duet on "It Should've Happened a Long Time Ago" was another one in this vein. What I admired about that was how brief it was. These were the stars of the evening; they could've rightly stretched out if they'd wanted to, but they just went in, paid their respects to the piece (one of Motian's real heartbreakers), living with that melody one more time, and exited gracefully.
Other sets kicked up a lot of dust, and this made sense too. Marilyn Crispell and Ben Monder were the unleashers of the evening, each making a pretty glorious racket during their respective performances with Cyrille. (The groups were, respectively, Crispell, Lovano, Gary Peacock and Cyrille, and Monder, Bill McHenry, Anderson and Cyrille.) I got the sense from Crispell that she got completely carried away, not necessarily by the whole "spirit of Motian" thing, but by the chance to be up there slaying alongside Andrew Cyrille; you could not mistake the inherent Cecil-ness of what was going on. It was wild and really fun to watch. Monder, on the other hand, snuck up behind McHenry—sounding, typically, eerily authoritative while maintaining that very Motian-y unknowability of his, that sense that he knows exactly what he's aiming for and that he isn't going to hold your hand while he goes there—conjuring this poison-cloud wash and then, when it was his turn to solo, dropping the incendiary shred as only he can. Both of these turns (the Crispell, the Monder) seemed just a little bullish to me, which again, was perfectly appropriate for the occasion. Motian's playing could often be that way too.
Petra Haden projected the opposite attitude. She was nervous, as she admitted. She read a beautiful note from her father, in which he identified Motian as his heartbeat. It was one of those sentiments that would've sounded cliché in almost any other case but this, i.e., there's an insane amount of wonderful recorded evidence to support Haden's claim. Petra Haden's performance of "The Windmills of Your Mind" was clear and yearning, not explicitly elegiac but definitely nostalgic. It was right to have only Frisell there to accompany her, so that the song could take on that sort of disembodied quality that Motian always seemed to be aiming for.
Like pretty much all of what went down last night, this performance eventually took flight, transcended the occasion, meant something more than mere reverence. Motian shone through in a lot of it, but what it was really about were all these great personalities—and I haven't mentioned Geri Allen, Greg Osby, Larry Grenadier, maybe a couple others, all of whom shone in their own ways—moving through the material and into a personal space, singing Motian, which in turn let them sing themselves.