The Daze of Mixed Thanks

May the Thanksgiving Weekend be a good one for you and everyone. I know that, for some, the holiday has a certain stigma that is hard to ignore. I think Sarah Vowell put it well on The Daily Show.

I, like most of the people fortunate enough to be able to read this blog live in a world where one’s principle exposure to music is not through live performance, but through electronic media. (But PLEASE don’t make that the sole measure of your good fortune … well, you can if you want to, but I still don’t recommend it.) Besides from some coaching from my dad (who would get me to accompany him while he practiced the piano), a year’s worth of private lessons with Jerry Hahn and Michael Burr, and the standard public school music programs in California in the 1960s, I learned music by playing along with: the television (Hullabaloo, The Lloyd Thaxton Show, Where the Action Is, The Beatles, and The Monkees—all weekly or daily shows that offered at least three songs a show); the radio (I had an AM transistor model, the kind with a single earpiece, that fit in my shirt pocket); and records. When I finally got an FM radio and could get KJAZ, KFRC and KPFA, I knew that I could learn anything! In fact, the first time I saw Charles Mingus was on an NET broadcast of a documentary about him. But, I couldn’t always get the names of all of the artists. KJAZ would play “Stolen Moments” often, but the only name they mentioned was Oliver Nelson; I didn’t know that Freddie Hubbard, Bill Evans and Eric Dolphy were on the recording until much later. I would hear the Bill Evans trios but the disc jockeys usually didn’t mention the drummer’s name, just the bassist (Scott LaFaro or Eddie Gomez). So I wasn’t familiar with the name of Paul Motian until he came to San Francisco to play at Keystone Korner for two weeks with the Keith Jarrett Quartet.

That changed my life! I was familiar with Charlie Haden and Dewey Redman from their recordings with Ornette Coleman and knew that they could “do no wrong” when it came to making music. So I was very ready to hear this piano player, who I had only heard about as the overly gesticulated electric pianist accompanying Miles Davis at the Concord Jazz Festival. (I didn’t attend, but I was told about it by some of my high-school class mates). I went to Keystone with Brent Rampone, a brilliant drummer who introduced me (personally) to John Handy, Jim Pepper, Russell Ferrante and David Haskell and now plays with Mark Ford (the virtuoso blues harp-playing brother of guitarist Robben). I had just seen a copy of Bertram Turetzky’s The Contemporary Contrabass and my head was full of cutting edge ideas about the instrument, but when Haden started playing a ballad by pulling the string off to the side of the fingerboard so that it buzzed, I was smitten—with playing the acoustic bass (I was thinking more about fusion and funk and guitar and other stuff). Jarrett was stunning and smart and entertained by playing great music and the same was true for the ever stoic, but impassioned Dewey Redman.

With Paul Motian, though, I couldn’t believe how much sound he got from the tiny set he used, but it was really hard to watch him. His technique included gestures that were entirely unorthodox to what I knew jazz drumming to be. Sometimes I thought he was going to miss whatever drum or cymbal he was aiming at. Actually, I couldn’t tell what he was aiming at because his arms would float around until the very last instant that he decided what he was going to play. Considering how much drums Motian could play, the effect was, well, impressively distracting; but if I closed my eyes and just listened.

It wasn’t until I moved to New York and played with some “old-time” Dixieland drummers that I saw that Motian’s technique was actually deeply rooted in that approach. Not that he was a Trad player (although he started that way). In fact, Motian was avant-garde without being avant-garde. He was one of those great musicians, an artist who cared little about stifling his vision with issues of style and genre. He didn’t need those to be authentic. Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, The Liberation Music Orchestra, the Quintets, Quartets and Trio with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano, the Electric Bebop Band—each a different ensemble with unique voices and approaches, yet he could play each one as if he had never played in the other, but still sounding like Paul Motian. I had the honor of recording two albums with him for Mose Allison, and he played Mose’s music as if he never heard of Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, or Carla Bley—but he still sounded like Paul Motian.

If you haven’t guessed from the use of past-tense or didn’t already know, Paul Motian—one of the great moving forces in American music—passed away on Tuesday morning at about 4:30 AM from “complications of myelodysplastic syndrome, a blood and bone-marrow disorder” (reported in the NY Times). Death, as Amiri Baraka puts it, is usually a drag, and around the holidays is even more discomforting. As there are several excellent on-line obits and bios about Paul, I won’t try to put one together here. But I do remember hanging out and playing music with him as part of the high points in my life, even though our initial introduction was at my audition for the Lovano-Drewes-Frisell Quintet, where I didn’t make the grade. (My friend Ed Schuller got it.) Paul and I talked about it after our first concert with Mose (he peeked that I wasn’t joking around when I played the bass with my jaw) and came to better-than-friendly terms. The fact is that you couldn’t be on unfriendly terms with Paul Motian; he was a man who (to paraphrase bassist David Izenzon) knew that music can save the world, and helped everyone he met stay on good terms with it. I wound up playing an extended solo on a tune Kenny Werner wrote, “For PM,” that takes up most of the second side (the tune, not the solo) of 298 Bridge Street . I plan to dig it up and put it on my website in tribute to this remarkable man.

Unfortunately our paths hadn’t crossed much in the last decade. The last time I saw him was at bassist Dennis Irwin’s fundraiser/memorial at Lincoln Center in 2008. It was a bummer affair, so I sat with him and Kenny Washington and listened to them talk shop, chiming in whenever appropriate. We were going to get together down the line and hang out—talk some, play some—but, ironically, life got in the way. He sounded great that day, and he always sounded great. He also looked great that day, but he always looked great. Like Elvin Jones, Roy Haynes, Bob Myers, Rakalam Bob Moses, Tony Moreno, or Gene Jackson: Motian was just one big muscle—drumming does that to some people.

I heard from vocalist/composer Judi Silvano (Joe Lovano’s Mrs.) that a memorial is planned for sometime after the holidays, possibly January. She reminded me that they (Judi and Joey) had just started dating when Bill Evans’ bassist, Marc Johnson (who had his own group with Frisell and guitarist John Scoffield, Bass Desires), introduced Joe to Paul. That would have been around 1980 or so, right around the time I met him. Back then we were so young, so inspired (so firm); everything was about the music—and still is. Paul had been taking a trio to Europe with Charles Brackeen and, at first David Izenzon (who was also a co-founder of Pot Smokers Anonymous and died of a heart attack after chasing a purse snatcher while jogging around Central Park), and then with Jean-François Jenny-Clark. The music they were playing was nothing like the music of Bill Evans—or Keith Jarrett—for that matter. They had recorded two albums for ECM (Dance and Le Voyage ), but something happened and Motian was looking for a new group. The one he put together and recorded Psalm with began the Frisell/Lovano alliance that, like the Evans/LaFaro trio and the Jarrett/Redman/Haden quartet, changed the music that would come out of our radios and televisions forever. One can honestly say that there was music before these groups, and then there’s music after them. I don’t think this is a coincidence. I know we’ll look back one day and apply the observation to Paul Motian alone.

Stephan Paul Motian (25 March 1931, Philadelphia, PA – 22 November 2011, New York, NY) had a great run, pretty much recording and touring since 1955, 61 years. He gave us a lot and did a lot. Unfortunately for us, there was probably a lot more in him to give and do. Fortunately for us, in our mechanically managed and marketed musical milieu, there’s a lot of Paul Motian to hear. I’m listening to him on WKCR right now … and he sounds GREAT!

2 thoughts on “The Daze of Mixed Thanks

  1. Terence O'Grady

    Very nice article. Paul Motian was in fact an extraordinary percussionist. Especially in the earlier days when he was playing with the great Bill Evans and virtuoso bassists like Gomez, a listener could not be blamed for occasionally thinking, “Why doesn’t Motian do more? He could do so much more!” But then, if you stopped to ask yourself exactly what more could Motian do and still be consistent not only with the unique sound world he had created but compatible with Evans’ equally unique musical universe, I think most people came to the conclusion that Motian could and should do nothing more (and nothing different) than what he was already doing. No wasted energy. No wasted strokes. Absolutely nothing for show (including his tendency to suspend himself in midair as he chose the correct split-second to deliver an accent). Motian’s life in music was exemplary.

    Reply

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