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.

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