Monday, May 28, 2018

"You go and you play": On Paul Motian's limitless jazz

[Postscript, July 2018: After writing the below, I saw a rough cut of Michael Patrick Kelly's thorough and enlightening documentary on Paul Motian, Motian in Motion. Keep an eye out for news on its official release. If you are a Motian fan, you need to see it.]

[Photo above borrowed from the website of Uncle Paul's Jazz Closet, a wonderful Paul Motian–centric podcast and info source, hosted/maintained by his niece Cindy McGuirl, that I can't wait to delve further into.]

Ted Panken's jazz interviews are invaluable, and lately I've been going back to one of my favorites, a conversation with Paul Motian from 2008. I've been deeply immersed in the Motian discography, and I find that the late drummer-composer's words, as self-effacing and even terse as they can be, serve as a great complement to the music.

[Emphasis mine.]

TP: Can you speak about the dynamics of playing with a bass player vis-a-vis playing without one?
PM: That was going through my head last night as I was playing. Without the bass, I can do whatever I want. I can change the tempo. I can play free, without a tempo. I can play free for a while, and then play in tempo for a while, and not play, and lay out. I’m totally free, and it’s totally open for me to do whatever I want. ...


TP: So in 1963, you’re playing with Bill Evans, and in 1964 you’re playing with Paul Bley, Albert Ayler and Gary Peacock. Opposite ends of the spectrum. Why did this happen?
PAUL: I don’t think of it as being that far apart. They were gigs, and it was music. Just playing music, man. Continuing, going forward.

In jazz, as I have experienced it, there is this great divide, such that one often feels the need to pick a side. You will hear about "inside" and "outside," "straight-ahead" and "avant-garde," and all the rest. (Funny, because the aesthetic that eventually came to be seen as the conservative center of jazz, bebop and its offshoots, was once reviled as its own kind of blasphemous perversion of what came before.) When I was first getting to know the music, it was what I perceived, and what was often termed, as the fringes that drew me in. Kind of Blue didn't stick at first, but The Shape of Jazz to Come did; I was a serious Albert Ayler fan before I really came to appreciate the Ellington canon, and so forth.

These divisions persist and are still frequently invoked in the discussions that surround jazz. I of course missed the "anti-jazz" melee that sprung up around Coltrane's late work, and I was still a neophyte at the time of the whole Ken Burns Jazz controversy (not to mention the tensions surrounding the "Young Lions" movement, the uptown/downtown divide, etc.). But nonetheless there was a time when I bought into all that wholesale, i.e., that the idea of a turf war was inherent in this music.

And there's no doubt that for some, it was, and perhaps still is. No doubt prejudices regarding certain styles and aesthetics, or even vague affiliations, have prevented, and likely still do prevent, certain artists from getting gigs. (I think of Sunny Murray, quoted in Val Wilmer's As Serious as Your Life: "Working with Cecil Taylor was the worst thing that ever happened to me. ... I became stereotyped in that role and no one wanted to hear me play. I was a good bebop drummer before Cecil. Really – I should have stayed with that.") Of course, the opposite can be true too, where an artist takes on a certain cachet or cool quotient because of one or two "out" record dates they did decades ago that have very little to do with the sort of musician they ultimately became.

But the more time I spend with Paul Motian's music, particularly his extensive body of work as a leader, the more I feel like he was one of the rare figures, not just in jazz but in any music, in recent memory, who was able to really get free of all that. Ted Panken makes reference to "opposite ends of the spectrum" and Motian counters with: "They were gigs, and it was music."

It's worth repeating: "They were gigs, and it was music."

He's not diminishing the scope of anything, or, I think, chiding his interlocutor for over-analysis. (Nor does he do so in this 2010 New Sounds interview with John Schaefer, though by the show's conclusion, the host seems somewhat at his wit's end; for a comedic take on same, see drummer and Motian superfan Vinnie Sperrazza's hilarious account of attempting to engage his idol at gigs over the years.) He's merely stating plainly — and reiterating when necessary — his thought process, or more accurately his lack of one.

There's a great exchange in an earlier Panken/Motian conversation, from 2005, which I'll quote at some length. We cut in as Panken is inquiring about Motian's gear...

[Again, emphasis mine.]

TP: So you don’t give Gretsch specifications?
PAUL: No. As a matter of fact, James Farber asked me when I got my drumkit, and I couldn’t remember. Then he remembered because he said it was on Bill Frisell’s first record on ECM; I had the same drumkit. That means I’ve had it for 15 years or so, and I didn’t realize that. I just went into a drum-shop and bought it.

TP: You’re so matter of fact when you talk about these areas of your career…
PAUL: Yeah! It’s not no deep fuckin’ secret! People talk about this shit like it’s some kind of…

TP: But you were involved in a lot of cataclysmic events. The Bill Evans Trio, which influenced every pianist who came after. You’re involved in the Keith Jarrett Quartet, and a ton of people are still drawing on that vocabulary. You came in on Albert Ayler and Paul Bley and a certain way of organizing that kind of thing. Frisell and Lovano, that trio set a template for everybody under 40 (who went to a conservatory anyway). So that’s at least four major shifts in the music that you’re part of.
PAUL: Well, okay.

TP: Well, you know this. It seems to be part of following your instincts, the quotidian thing of being a working musician in New York. “I like it, I go there, I play it.”
PAUL: Yeah-yeah. That’s it, man. There’s no…

TP: But wasn’t it a conceptual leap to play behind Albert Ayler after you’d been playing with Bill Evans?

TP: Maybe Scott LaFaro prepared you for that.
PAUL: Nobody prepared me for… No. No! No, man. None of that stuff is true! Somebody calls you for a gig, and you go, and you play, and you play with the people that you play with, and you play with them, and you try to make music. You try to make music with the people you’re playing with, and then play a certain way, so you might play a certain way just to make it musical or make it magic or make it something that’s worthwhile.

TP: Then it becomes part of your style, doesn’t it.
PAUL: I don’t know.

TP: You don’t let it go. It becomes part of your muscle memory or your brain memory…
PAUL: I don’t know! [LAUGHS]
Again, I do not single out these passages to take issue with Panken's line of questioning, which I think comes out of a completely genuine and perfectly understandable curiosity re: how one musician could cover so much meaningful musical ground. I just mean to emphasize the sort of Zen-like wisdom in Motian's responses. It might seem as though he's being "difficult," but I think he's simply trying to sort of set the record straight. I think that he really and truly does not believe in these divisions within his chosen music, that he recognizes the individual genius of, say, Bill Evans and Albert Ayler but does not see their aesthetics as somehow contradictory, or mutually exclusive.

"Somebody calls you for a gig, and you go, and you play, and you play with the people that you play with, and you play with them, and you try to make music."

I think it's hard for us as listeners and fans to realize sometimes that music we hear as innovative or inspiring or groundbreaking or transporting simply happened. I wasn't there, but I'd wager that there was no great flash of smoke at Van Gelder Studio at the outset of the recording of A Love Supreme; it was another day at work. Deeply creative, spiritually engaged work, yes. But it happened the same way all other music happens: " go, and you play."

I've savored a wide spectrum of Motian recordings in recent weeks, nearly all of it absolutely sublime. The '87 quintet album Misterioso; Lost in a Dream, the 2010 one-off with Chris Potter and Jason Moran, which, as far as I'm concerned, is one of the most poetic and category-transcending musical documents I know; and hours and hours of music by the famed trio with Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell, which might just be the fullest realization of the principles I'm skirting around above, the idea of this sort of division-less space where, in Motian's words, "I can do whatever I want." (And I should note that much of Motian's commentary above revolves around the idea of working as a sideman, a far less thought-out circumstance than his leader scenarios, which showcased the fruits of decades of private labor as a composer, but I think the basic principles still apply.)

I've been spending time today with this extraordinary footage of a 1986 concert by the trio and then I switched over to a recent acquisition, the 1995 live album At the Village Vanguard: You Took the Words Right Out of My Heart. Right now I'm listening to a particularly hard-swinging passage of the track "Yahllah" — an often-revisited Motian piece that I believe first surfaced, in a very different incarnation, on the Keith Jarrett album Byablue — from the latter, with Lovano riding Motian's deep, sloshy groove, and Frisell plucking along like a steady-rolling locomotive behind them. It's total trance-blues ecstasy, an episode of communion and propulsion that sounds like it could go on forever, and maybe has been.

And it's such a profoundly different musical space from the one we hear on, say, the "Folk Song for Rosie," another Motian classic, from this album. Motian is playing a kind of tempo here, delineating the barest essence and contour of the music on ride cymbal and bass drum, but the centerpiece is this sort of endless circular chant that you hear in Motian's music, something I explored in some detail in this 2015 post, wherein Lovano and Frisell sort of build up the melody like a mantra, sometimes singing it back and forth to one another, sometimes phrasing it together in ghostly rubato. The songs, and Motian's compositions, especially the "ballads," lend themselves so beautifully to this treatment, just sort of hover and cycle and accrue more and more tenderness and pathos with each rendering. ("Every [one of Paul's compositions] was a little different, but they all had a real folk-song feeling," Lovano told me when I interviewed him for a posthumous Motian tribute in 2013. "You could play his melodies over and over again for hours and express them in different ways. Paul wrote some really strong, powerful, beautiful, simple melodies. And some tunes had more structure, more harmonic sequences; some tunes just had a mood and a very simple little phrase. Paul could sustain a mood like no one else and create so much inner music within that.") There are "solos" in this music, episodes when it's clear that one of the three players is taking the lead, but there's never that sense, that can be prevalent in some jazz, that the raw material of the song, the launchpad, if you will, is being dispensed with once it's stated at the outset. The material of a given song suffuses the entire performance. All three players are there to sing it — to abstract it perhaps, stretch it to the point of pure ambience, but never to get free of it.

And the fact that this song material is so incredibly pure and powerful and memorable and achingly poetic is a large part of why this music feels so free. You can do whatever you want to these songs, and they still sound like themselves, their essence still dripping from every pore of a given performance. Every extemporization, from any of the three players, seems not like a glorification of that player, or an invention of his ego, but an impassioned paean to the song itself. (The same is true in the band's treatments of standards and showtunes, though I'll admit a preference for the originals.)

So it's not that there's no thought or intent behind this music; quite the opposite. It's more that the thought and intent is so completely expressed within the music itself, both in its conception by Motian, and its performance by the trio, that explanation seems superfluous. The "freedom" in this music is so inextricably braided together with the songhood of it, and vice versa, that its very existence seems like a refutation of easy, outwardly imposed dichotomies or divisions within jazz. (A lesson Bill Frisell seemed to learn the very first time he played with Paul Motian: "What surprised me, when I first went over to his house to play, the very first moment…I guess I was expecting that we were going to play some completely free, crazy, wigged-out avant-garde stuff," the guitarist told me in 2013. "But ... we played that George Gershwin song ['My Man's Gone Now,' which Motian had played with Bill Evans]. And everything we did, there was such a structure and a clear intent with it. And so many of his own tunes were very open, but they were very particular. I could tell he was really struggling, in a way, to find his own way of writing music."*)

Classify if you must, the trio seems to say, but whatever arbitrary distinctions you settle on, leave us out of it. From moment to moment, this band can be heartbreakingly tender, forbiddingly tumultuous, charmingly quirky or just plain fucking strange:

If there is a name for what that music is, other than Paul Motian Trio Music, I don't know what it is, or care to know. It is simply itself.

"You go, and you play."


*Bill Frisell elaborated further on Motian's range, wisdom and almost mystical presence on the bandstand:

"It sort of aggravates me how people still view [Paul] as this 'free,' 'abstract' [drummer]—all that kind of stuff. So many people miss that he had the heaviest, deepest beat I ever heard in my life. At this point I've played with some pretty extraordinary drummers. With Paul, no matter how abstract it got, his time feeling, the beat was just unbelievable. You could hear that, Wow, he's played with Coleman Hawkins and Monk and Oscar Pettiford. [His playing] had that direct artery going right back to that stuff. He's more known as—whatever the words they use—a 'colorist.' But somehow it all comes from that depth of the beat. The time feel is so deep that no matter how abstract he was, that was always there. I've never had a blood transfusion, but playing with him was always like I was getting filled with juice.

"There was such a wide range of dynamics. He'll go from almost a stadium-rock-band thing [Ed. note: Check out his incredible whomping tom fill at 3:17 in the aforementioned live video.] to just whispering. I experienced that a lot. Sometimes he would have me play things by myself. On all the records, there's usually one song that he'll just have me play alone, and sometimes I'd do it on the gig. But even when he wasn't playing, he was affecting the music. One time, he had me play something by myself and he's sitting there at the drums but he's not playing. And I'm playing this thing, and in the back of my mind, I'm thinking, Wow, I sound really good. And then I tried to do that somewhere else when he wasn't there and nothing happened. So whether he was making a sound or not, he was still making the music."

*This beautiful John Rogers recollection also touches on the Paul Motian Effect, that guru-like way he seemingly had of elevating the activities and ambitions of everyone around him.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Recent raves: Immortal, Pat Metheny and more

Happy spring! A few recent musical obsessions and raves:

I'm generally not a fan of the endless microdivision of music into various subcategories, but I guess that looking back at my consumption of metal in its various forms over the years, I could generally say that I haven't gone that deep with the movement they call "black metal." Of the various canonical groups, the one I'd spent the most time with before the past month or so was Mayhem, whose shadowy, esoteric vibe (both re: the classic stuff and the more current releases) I dig very much. Recently, though — prompted by the announcement of a new album, Northern Chaos Gods, out in July — I dove into the Immortal catalog and made my way through their eight prior full-lengths. I took a backwards route, and while it was fun to hear the sound grow more and more primitive, as is often the case for me, I gravitated more toward the band's "mature" sound, where they'd dispensed with the seemingly central black-metal value of sounding harsh and lo-fi for the sake of pure extremity and moved on to a place I could relate to more: where it's simply about the songs.

The 2002 album Sons of Northern Darkness, the band's final album before their initial breakup a year later, particularly struck me. What I love about this record is the way that the material just sort of instantly obviates those subgenre distinctions I was referring to above. Yeah, the dudes like to paint their faces and dress up in leather and spikes; yeah, the vocals take the form of an otherworldly croak. But when you get right down to it, this stuff is just heavy, anthemic rock and roll, built around extremely sturdy, memorable riffs and designed for maximum live efficiency. I watch a performance like the one below, of Immortal playing at the 2007 edition of the legendary Germany fest Wacken Open Air — and I highly recommend checking out the entire concert, released in audio and video forms as The Seventh Date of Blashyrkh — and I see and hear the purest essence of heavy metal: a gloriously over-the-top, turn-off-your-brain-and-rage spectacle. So much metal, especially "extreme" metal presents itself as some kind of insular rite, where the spectator is merely an incidental presence. That kind of thing can be cool in the right hands, but to me, there's something really joyous and inspiring about Immortal's total commitment to pure heavy-metal entertainment.

This 2008 Guitar World interview with Immortal co-architects Abbath and Demonaz only drove home the band's deep connection — seemingly denied by so many in the metal underground —  to the rock and roll tradition:

Abbath: "Me and Demonaz are true. You can’t find truer people than us. But what’s true? We’re true…to rock and roll. It’s not about being evil and nasty to the rest of your fellows; it’s about showing those who think that rock and roll is a bad thing that, yeah, it is a bad thing: It’s baaad, in an all right way. It’s good. It’s freedom. Metal? Sure. But it’s rock and roll! If you don’t have the rock and roll attitude and vibe, you’ve got nothing."

Pat Metheny
What can I say? The man's discography has brought me an extreme amount of joy over the years, and periodically, I get swept up and totally lost in the insane quantity and variety of sound he's brought into the world over the years. I can't remember what set off this latest immersion, but I started out by traversing many of the Pat Metheny Group recordings both vintage and more recent. That band's 1978 debut has become a major touchstone for me in recent years. I poke fun at the Group's smoothness sometimes — let's be honest, for pure frictionless breeziness, that ensemble has often rivaled the most unabashed practitioners of so-called yacht-rock — and among friends and bandmates I've taken to labeling their aesthetic "elevator shred," but in the moment, while the listening is in progress, there are no qualifiers or disclaimers: I adore this stuff, plain and simple. As with Immortal above, I'm just extremely attracted to the unabashed quality of this body of work: Metheny and Co. seem concerned with nothing but making the most purely beautiful and epic music they can conceive of, completely irrespective of genre or fashion. At times does the Group ride a certain line of blandness that dampens my enthusiasm? Yeah, certainly — I'll admit that some of the mid-period output loses me a little bit. But at their best, and my three faves are probably that self-titled debut, the Travels live album from a few years later and the most recent PMG set, The Way Up, I find this band to be an inexhaustible source of transportive joy.

And what's so impressive to me is that the PMG aesthetic, which for some musicians would be the basis for an entire career, is only a sliver of what Pat Metheny is about. He's got this whole other, more capital-J Jazz side of what he does (I talked a bit about this duality in a 2008 DFSBP post), collaborating with the greatest musicians in the world in that style — "hanging," to speak with that circle, but never losing his core identity as this sort of Midwestern maverick, endlessly committed, yes, to chopsy virtuosity but also to a certain soulfulness and, again, the unabashed projection of the ecstasy of each musical moment. I've been returning to many of the established classics, from 80/81 to Rejoicing, and, again, just finding them to be so radiant and loose and enjoyable and free of pretense.

Another project that's been really grabbing me is the Unity Group (which grew out of an earlier project called the Unity Band), one of Metheny's latest ventures, which seems to be an attempt to reconcile various strains of his work, from the PMG "pastoral prog" vibe to the hardcore jazz stuff to the whimsical Orchestrion project, into one kind of superband. I highly recommend checking out both the 2014 album Kin and the live-in-a-black-box 2016 follow-up The Unity Sessions. The depth of the band (featuring Metheny's current drummer-of-choice Antonio Sanchez, monster saxist Chris Potter, bassist Ben Williams and multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Giulio Carmassi) allows Metheny to revel in all sides of what he loves to do in turn, from tender ballads to epic, quasi-proggish, through-composed suites to fiery extended solos, in settings ranging from reflective unaccompanied guitar to the full band's mini-orchestral lushness. I think of The Unity Sessions in particular as a sort of sweeping celebration of the Pat Metheny Sound in all its splendor. (Appropriately, the material ranges from pieces specifically written for the Unity Band/Group to classics from '80/'81, Song X and more.) For the full experience, I highly recommend checking out the concert-film version of the release, which is available in full on iTunes. Here's a preview:

Another recommended Metheny document: this excellent long-form interview conducted by Willard Jenkins last year. It really drives home for me the sort of pleasure-principle aspect of what Metheny does. He seems sort of marvelously unconcerned with how anyone might sort of classify or evaluate the various strains of his output, and on the contrary, marvelously concerned only with how much happiness and fulfillment a given musical endeavor might bring him. (Some might dispute me on this, but in my mind, his pleasure-principle attitude almost seems punk, a quality that aligns him directly with his similarly prolific and eclectic onetime collaborator John Zorn.) I have to say, though there are albums and projects of his I respond to more and less, that spirit of sort of innocent enthusiasm seems remarkably consistent throughout his body of work, from the Bright Size Life days up till now.

Demilich + Blood Incantation at Saint Vitus; May 4th, 2018
Speaking of joy, this show was just a goddamn blast from start to finish. I'd been wanting to see Demilich live for years. I have such a deep reverence for their lone 1993 album, Nespithe, which I went deep on when it was reissued a few years back, and that reverence has only grown after seeing Antti Boman and Co. rip through this material with no-nonsense passion and precision. The quarter century in between has not dulled the singularity and strangeness of this material in the slightest. Those stupendously grooving, asymmetrical riffs; that odd, bubbly belch of a voice — there's just nothing else like it in metal, and it's so inspiring to see that they're still commanding such respect and adoration this many years later (two sold out shows in one night at Vitus!). As I wrote on Twitter the other night, this sort of weird, roundabout cult success story could only happen in underground metal.

And Blood Incantation just absolutely blew me away. I'd read the raves about their 2016 release Starspawn, and while I've revisited in recent days and can confirm that it does indeed rip, I have to say that it doesn't even come close to approximating (for me, at least) how overwhelmingly captivating and intense this band was live. Their set just felt absolutely possessed and commanding, like they'd been locked in some underground bunker for years just drilling this stuff over and over (maybe just a.k.a. "on tour a whole fucking lot"), and when they emerged it was just pure internalized ritual, and channeling of some expertly honed force. They left me floored with how skillfully they covered the full spectrum of metal values, from a truly feral feel and energy to a truly grand, majestic compositional vision. Next time they play here, I will be dragging everyone I know, because this set was a fucking marvel to behold.

And shout-out to Artificial Brain as well! I'm deeply into their frontman's sort of good-natured ringleader vibe, and the band's highly appealing/effective blend of the slamming and the spacey.

Dave Holland / Evan Parker / Craig Taborn / Ches Smith, Uncharted Territories
I'm still digesting this (extremely long!) album, which comes out May 11th, but I'm absolutely loving it so far. Old Spontaneous Music Ensemble buds (btw, did you catch that phenomenal Karyobin reissue from last year?) Holland and Parker join up with two new-school leaders for a deep, varied free-improv excursion (rounded out by a select few compositions). As previously stated, there's an almost absurd amount of music here, but what I dig about the release is that that tracks themselves are relatively compact and digestible. I've been enjoying putting this one on shuffle and just sort of savoring whatever comes up. Given that the album includes basically all combinations of the four players, there's a ton of variety in the sound and the texture. Beautiful recording quality too. Don't miss this excellent Holland interview by Steve Smith, in which Dave tantalizingly alludes to a possible tour by this fine ensemble.

More on the Holland here, via RS.