Ponce de León Should’ve Checked the Vanguard

In “Flee as a Bird,” Gary Giddins’ 2003 Village Voice farewell column that’s more a commencment address than any sort of official goodbye, the author caps his first paragraph with what’s not necessarily a jazz adage, but damn well should be. “In jazz, time is all,” he writes. As majestic as that phrase is, I’d like to amend it. Actually, I’d like to negate it. Jazz music lives in time; jazz musicians live beyond it.

If there’s one thing that proves the mystical powers of the music our writers try earnestly to capture issue after issue, it’s the sheer agelessness of jazz players. In this space last month, I complained about how the music is overwrought with nostalgia and how the veterans seem unwilling to let the next generation stake its claim. While I stand by my sentiments regarding underappreciated young jazz men and women, I also understand why we have these problems: The septua- and octogenarians are still kicking—and swinging, and burning, and killing it. Our critics’ favorite record of 2006 was 77-year-old Ornette Coleman’s Sound Grammar (the Pulitzer people thought it was pretty great, too). If you’ve heard it, you understand why. That record is as old-fashioned as sex or a street fight.

Our cover subject Paul Motian is 76 and, like Ornette, changed his instrument’s purpose and composes with equal parts daring and melodic delight. To see Motian in action is a study in kinetic energy: When I arrived at a Times Square studio space to observe a photo session and interview him and his friends Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano, Motian talked trash, cursed, cracked jokes and goodheartedly heckled photographer John Abbott while looking lean and mean for the cameras. He’s about as grandfatherly as Quentin Tarantino.

Word has it that Motian has an unpublished autobiography with the working title We Couldn’t Find Philadelphia. Such a book would have to be revised and amended 100 times over and released posthumously, since every album the drummer unleashes could possibly be the record of his life—listen to his Trio’s new, exhilarating Time and Time Again and try to tell me he’s winding down. I’m convinced he’ll redefine jazz until closing time, at which point the labels will rummage the vaults and show us he had worlds more to say.

The same goes for some of the other feature subjects in this issue: Kenny Burrell turns 76—jazz’s new official lucky number—on July 31, yet he’s busier than ever with performing, recording and handing the music down through his teaching at UCLA. And in the Before & After with archtop guitar masters Bucky and John Pizzarelli, pop gives son a run for his money in insight and wit.

I was once employed by a workaholic whose idea of taking a vacation was to wear shorts to the office and knock off an hour or two early. I’m convinced he loved his work, but I believe Motian, Burrell and Pizzarelli love theirs even more. For them, retirement means only hitting it twice as hard. JT

Originally published in July/August 2007

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