Paying Tribute to Paul Motian

Heavyweights honor the late drummer and composer in New York

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Geri Allen, Ravi Coltrane, Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell, Paul Motian tribute concert at Symphony Space, NYC, March 2013
By Jeff Tamarkin

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The Keith Jarrett quote that Manhattan’s Symphony Space used in ads for its March 22 concert simply dubbed “A Tribute to Paul Motian” was this: “Paul was one of a kind: a musicians’ drummer who thought about the music, not just the rhythm, and cast his own sound on everything he played ... he could play anything, and with anybody.” That was the unstated premise that hovered over the nearly three-hour love-fest organized by saxophonist Joe Lovano and guitarist Bill Frisell. To pay homage to Motian, who died at age 80 in November 2011, would not be to imitate him—not that anyone really could; he was that unique—but to revel in the drummer-composer’s insatiable, venturesome curiosity and apply it to a stunningly wide array of music.

Much of what was performed on this night didn’t even feature a drummer, and trios—one of Motian’s favored configurations, most notably his storied stint with Bill Evans and Scott LaFaro, and, later, his band with Lovano and Frisell—were nonexistent. Many of the players here worked with Motian, some for many years, others only briefly; some never got the chance. Their commonality was the impact he had on all of them, their goal to expose the breadth of his artistry.

Lovano and Frisell—“People who lived music with him,” as WBGO personality Josh Jackson, the evening’s host, called the pair who played with Motian for three decades—opened with their take on “Conception Vessel.” The choice was appropriate, as it was the title track of Motian’s 1972 ECM debut album as a leader and served to showcase right off the bat the flexibility of Motian’s compositions. The conversational nature of that writing was on display all night, whether a duo—such as Billy Hart and Andrew Cyrille in an epic drum match—quartet or a bevy of saxophonists and guitarists were expounding on one of Motian’s ideas.

Composed works and free improv were given equal weight; dissonance and clean, straight-ahead melody proved equally Motian-esque. Bassist Gary Peacock (who recorded with Motian and Jarrett) dueted separately with pianists Masabumi Kikuchi and Marilyn Crispell, each balancing angular agitations with the near-bucolic. “Mesmer,” from Motian’s 2006 Garden of Eden album, was reprised by a reimagined version of his Electric Bebop Band featuring guitarists Ben Monder, Steve Cardenas and Jakob Bro, bassist Jerome Harris and saxophonist Chris Cheek—all from that original session—augmented here by two more saxes, Bill McHenry’s and Billy Drewes’, with Larry Grenadier on second bass and Matt Wilson taking Motian’s drum seat. A virtual wall of sound, it swung fiercely while retaining the wit (who better for that than Wilson?) and poshness that Motian so often managed to synthesize.

This was, quite deliberately, an evening of contrasts: Joey Baron’s volcanic drum solo amidst “Dance”; pianist Geri Allen mixing it up with Frisell, Lovano and Ravi Coltrane; those same two saxophonists sitting in with the Bad Plus on “Abacus,” going all the way back to 1979’s Le Voyage; exquisite duets featuring Tim Berne (saxophone) and Matt Mitchell (piano), Greg Osby (alto) and Frisell, and Frisell again with singer Petra Haden.

A written statement was sent in by Charles Lloyd, who was unable to attend, and read by Lovano. Lloyd said that Motian “had the dance down.” His was a most unusual dance, to be sure—it often rolled out tentatively and took its time to find itself, but it always did. It was a dance that valued open space as much as the pocket, melody as much as rhythm, and surprise above all. How Paul Motian would have loved sitting in on this night.

Originally published in May 2013

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