12/15/06

A Tribute to Paul Motian

Snug Harbor sounded just a bit different this night. In tribute to jazz giant, drummer and composer Paul Motian, the music took a direction less traveled in the Crescent City. While New Orleans’ modern jazz mecca changes faces and attitudes nightly, drummer Johnny Vidacovich, saxophonist Ed Petersen and guitarist Brian Seeger awakened the audience to another point of view by presenting Motian’s work as well as evoking his approach to the music.

Motian fans were easy to please. Hearing his music live is a rarity. Hearing it played by these guys, all of whom are admirers and hugely capable, was just a treat. The format was typical Motian: drums, guitar and sax. That this group could lure in and hold onto a crowd that ranged from locals to tourists—undoubtedly sent to the Frenchmen street club by hotel concierges—boasts the strength of the honoree and that of the musicians. A repertoire that mixed Motian’s compositions, including the bebop he often turned to plus some original material, can be credited for many listeners staying for both of the hour- and-a-half sets. It was out, it was in; it remained stimulating and accessible.

Seeger was responsible for transcribing Motian’s compositions, including the exhilarating “Circle Dance” that stood as the only tune repeated, by request, throughout the evening. The evocative piece, which boasts an undeniable yet somehow subtle hook, soared from Petersen’s opening notes. His tenor is so big a microphone was absolutely superfluous for his shout-it-out style. Seeger, an intellect of sorts, laid back while spouting notes that surrounded the core. Vidacovich, who claims Motian as well as New Orleans drummer Ernie Elly as influences, mingled rhythms and melodies in his loose-limbed yet ultimately concise approach.

We got some of Motian’s take on Monk plus what Seeger declared as original rock ’n’ roll—just killer funk groove with Petersen going off—and a change of pace with an original from Martin Urbach, a young drummer who studied in New Orleans, with the alluring “Southern Damsel.”

New Orleans is a rather strange place these days, of many highs and lows. The music remains its power, its hope. This tribute to Paul Motian might have seemed unlikely right now yet it’s the kind of inventive, out-of-the-ordinary musical experiences that, in varying aspects, are happening all of the time. No longer is anything taken for granted.

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