Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Just song: The Paul Motian Trio's "It Should've Happened a Long Time Ago"

The past six months or so have been a time of change in my personal life. Positive change, in the long run, but not without its difficulties. The other day, a friend asked me whether I'd ever considered writing in detail about what I've been going through. My reply was, in so many words, "Maybe sometime, but not now." None of this is a secret—my amazingly supportive family and friends of course know what's up. But at this stage, there's no need for the details to be anything but private.

Still, to pretend that my life and my writing don't intersect, that one doesn't inform the other, whether I like it or not, is silly. And the same goes for my listening. During the past couple weeks, as a sort of sequel to my chronological Keith Jarrett ’67–’76 project, I've listened to little other than Paul Motian albums, specifically the first chunk of records he made as a leader, from his debut, Conception Vessel—recorded in ’72, while Motian was still a member of Jarrett's band—through 1987's One Time Out, the second LP by his famed trio with Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell, and the last Motian album on Soul Note before a long run on JMT / Winter and Winter. I've heard these records before, but I felt them more acutely this time around, and that probably has something to do with my emotional state.

In the second of the two Jarrett posts linked above, I wrote of Conception Vessel that it "…feels beautifully empty of compositional, directional content in the same way that [Jarrett's] Survivors' Suite feels so beautifully full." I've been thinking a lot about this idea of emptiness, or probably more accurately, simplicity, with respect to the Paul Motian bandleading concept. To listen to these early Motian records in sequence is fascinating. You can hear Motian trying out different approaches, from the moody, textural improv of Conception Vessel to the openhearted, melody-forward, almost psychedelic ’70s jazz of Tribute, and on to the sometimes placid, sometimes violent post-Ayler/Ornette saxophone-trio-isms (starring the great Charles Brackeen) of Dance and Le Voyage.

Then Bill Frisell comes along and alters the DNA of the Paul Motian sound. The intermittent turbulence and outright nastiness of the Brackeen years are still in evidence on the early quintet albums Motian made with Frisell (Psalm, The Story of Maryam and Jack of Clubs, recorded in ’81, ’83 and ’84, respectively), especially given that the guitarist was working with a seriously outr√© sonic palette back then, opting for sounds that sometimes come off as appealingly gnarly, sometimes as merely quirky and even a bit dated. But the romantic, atmospheric side of the Frisell sound was also blooming during these years, and bleeding together with Motian's own like-minded tendencies. The result was that when Motian scaled down the band to just himself, Frisell and Lovano for 1984's It Should've Happened a Long Time Ago, he hit upon a startlingly fresh concept. It's as though the quintet albums, good-to-great as they are, were a kind of training-wheels version of the trio to come, introducing the overall soundworld of the later band, but in a more conventional, less stark format.

To me, the Motian/Frisell/Lovano trio is one of the most, if not the most, emotionally resonant bands in all of jazz. At its best, this band strips away all the "head" elements of jazz, the detached, rote quality that the music can embody at its worst, and leaves only heart, feeling—sometimes warm and comforting; other times cold and forbidding—the nerve endings underneath the style, without the protective skin of genre.

In my current emotional state—hopeful, yet also vulnerable and reflective—this music feels like a balm. No other music, jazz or otherwise, will do, because no other music that I know has such a nakedness to it. It's pure affect, setting aside, or seeming to, technique and method and style and convention, and leaving only flow. "It Should've Happened a Long Time Ago" is, to me, a kind of theme song for this trio. It's the first piece and the title track from their debut album, and in many ways, it's the purest distillation of what made them great.

The track feels holy to me, like a kind of communion with melody. There is nothing but the song, the chant, the murmur. Each player is dancing only with the music, never with "chops" or with technique. It's just a group mission, with the objective of "How can we get closer to the root?" The whole song is the root. There are solos, I guess, but there's really only one sound, and it's the sound of this swaying, haunting waltz, a tune that, once you've heard it, sounds like it's always been there.

Motian wrote many different types of pieces, and this trio with Frisell and Lovano performed them in many different ways. But the "ballads," if we can call them ballads, such as "It Should've…," are the ones that really hit home with me. "It Should've…" feels both minimal and infinite. I hear it and I start grasping for similes that imply both simplicity and great depth: like a smooth stone that you keep in your pocket and turn over and over in your palm, learning every contour; like a game that, as the saying goes, takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master.

These concepts speak to me right now, during a time when, partly by necessity and partly by choice, I'm paring down my life, devoting as much time and attention as possible to the people and pursuits I love—family, friends, drumming, listening, writing, reading. I guess I'm looking for mantras, and I'm finding them in the work of Paul Motian. I'm wary of projecting my experiences onto music, of regarding art in a utilitarian way—i.e., "What can this piece of music do for me, right now?" But sometimes your listening ventures beyond enjoyment and into a kind of sonic therapy. "It Should've Happened a Long Time Ago" has become a kind of chant for me, a North Star, a way of centering.

I can't recommend It Should've Happened a Long Time Ago, the song and the album, highly enough. This trio made a ton of great music together, but there's something about the purity and perfection of this initial statement that really speaks to me. (Read Thom Jurek's take at AllMusic: "This set is made of the kind of music that made Manfred Eicher's ECM such a force to be reckoned with. It placed three musicians in a context that was comfortable enough to make them want to sing to one another.") As I've suggested above, Frisell's guitar language—see the ray-gun tone he employs on "Fiasco," for example—sometimes has a way of grounding an otherwise timeless-feeling album in its early-'80s era, but that's a minor quibble. "Conception Vessel," reprised from the album of the same name, is like a sculpture built from straw, focused and purposeful but also light and porous enough to blow away in the wind. The contrast with the wilder pieces is startling. On "Two Women from Padua," the trio plays a brief theme and then moves resolutely into the anti-gravity zone, speaking an alien language of texture and noise. All of a sudden, the music is the opposite of soothing—it's edgy and almost random-feeling. But Motian drops out and the surface of the sound smooths out; Lovano murmuring and praying through the horn, Frisell buffeting him with clouds of sound.

The band's intuitive motion into and around one another's sounds, the way each player always seemed to take into account not only the other two musicians, but also the immovable fact of the song they were playing, the bubble-thin delicacy of the vibe they were crafting together, only deepened over time. I'd love to embed the first "It Should've Happened…" here, but it's not streaming anywhere. Instead, I draw your attention to this 2005 Village Vanguard performance of the piece, 15 short minutes of bliss:

Watch Lovano lean back around the :30 mark. I relate to the feeling of communion his gesture expresses, the idea that a "jazz club" has become a kind of space station, a place where musicians and listeners alike take no sound for granted, where you don't move on to the next idea till you've fully processed the gravity of the one that came before. Minimalism seems like too pat a word for what Motian himself contributes here, the one-impossibly-profound-idea-at-a-time patience of his drumming. Again, the idea of paring down a performance till all that's left is the essence of the song, filling the room like a mist. Lovano begins to toy with the familiar theme around 3:30, emphasizing its dancing, almost klezmerish quality. Frisell chiming forth—accompanying but also enveloping. The performance is a slow group levitation, determined yet effortless. It's a sonic essay on the pleasures of concentration, of uncluttering. Lovano drops out around 6:30. Motian continuing unperturbed. Frisell intent on doing justice to the priceless vibe the three have built up. Not soloing; just flowing. I'm invoking concepts that seem clich√©, but in practice, they don't come along all that often. This band, in its own muted way, exhibited a fierce dedication to this idea—you let the song guide you. Not "jazz," not "theory," not "convention." Just song.

When Lovano reenters to a scattering of applause, I'm reminded—as I am nearly every time I attend a jazz performance—of Keith Jarrett's admonition of the audience on the CD reissue of Fort Yawuh: "There's absolutely no need to clap." He's right, because in a great jazz performance, who's soloing doesn't matter. Yes, solos can be chapter markings, but this performance is all about three musicians who share a common goal simply passing the baton back and forth. Everyone's a steward of the song, so it doesn't matter who's in "front" at any given moment. Motian ratcheting up the groove and tension ever so slightly around 10:40, bringing the song to a low boil, this trio's version of a climax. The theme returning in fragmented form, then in full bloom. Motian's two-handed accents around 12:30 signifying a kind of destination: "We're here at the meat of song." And then the final statement around 13:00, followed by a long trail of, for lack of a better term, song dust—a dispersing of essence.

Attention and care and focus and oneness. Performances like this are like life rafts for me at this moment. Again, I'm not trying to dramatize recent events in my life, nor am I trying to co-opt sound for my own good. I'm just trying to point out how music can inspire and guide, offer a framework for living as much as a sound for hearing. To sing one's song so plainly, with such serenity and determination, seems like the right idea, right now.


P.S. One more gorgeous version of this piece, a 1993 performance from the Motian album Trioism:


Unknown said...

I really enjoy your writing. Hope everything will be ok man.

Jake said...

I'm with Ronan. Hope you get through these tough times soon. Until you do, we're lucky to have you channeling your feeling into listening and writing. These posts are really inspiring. Hang in.