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Paul Motian, Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano: Trio In Motian

Motian Trio: Bill Frisell, Paul Motian and Joe Lovano
Motian Trio: Bill Frisell, Paul Motian and Joe Lovano (photo: John Abbott)
Motian Trio: Joe Lovano, Paul Motian and Bill Frisell
Motian Trio: Joe Lovano, Paul Motian and Bill Frisell (photo: John Abbott)
Paul Motian, Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano
Paul Motian, Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano (photo: John Abbott)
Paul Motian, Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell
Paul Motian, Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell (photo: John Abbott)
Bill Frisell, Paul Motian, and Joe Lovano
Bill Frisell, Paul Motian, and Joe Lovano (photo: John Abbott)
Bill Frisell, Joe Lovano and Paul Motian
Bill Frisell, Joe Lovano and Paul Motian (photo: Arne Reimer)

“One time I did an interview in Germany with this guy, and he had a machine like that one, and we talked for an hour—and it was a great interview. And I got up to leave and he said, ‘Oh, Mr. Motian, I’m sorry—could we do that again? I forgot to turn the machine on.’ I [told him to go to hell] and I left. Imagine that!”

If there were ever 69 words to make a journalist clutch his pockets for extra batteries and second-guess his command over an effective but finicky digital recorder, those are it. That they’re being spoken by Paul Motian—the lodestar drummer who entered jazz history as a sideman and will exit it as a gifted composer and relentlessly adventurous bandleader—doesn’t much lessen the intimidation factor. Nor does Motian’s wit: He’s at once caustic and congenial as only a longtime Manhattanite can be. And his habit of dressing like an assassin from some classic bit of film noir isn’t exactly disarming. Paul Motian is 76 years old, but, at least today, he seems to have retained most of the spunk and mettle of the discharged Navy man who hustled around the City from gig to jam session in the 1950s. Today he enjoys a rare brand of hip, one that comes with being both historical and audacious; a shade of chic that explains why Ornette Coleman is scheduled at Bonnaroo and why Motian, despite having peers who rehash standard renditions of standards, is as relevant to twentysomething players now as he was in the ’60s and ’70s.

Seated counterclockwise from Motian are the guitarist Bill Frisell, 20 years the drummer’s junior, and the tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, roughly two years younger than Frisell. The rapport here nearly obscures the generation gap, and if not for the obligatory statements of reverence (“Bill and I listened to Paul play on those classic, beautiful [piano trio] recordings long before we played with him,” Lovano says with candor), any lines between bandleader and sideman, septuagenarian and baby boomer, or postbop originator and Downtown emeritus would dissolve absolutely.

It’s hard to imagine which came first, the conversation or the music, since the mingling of individual personalities so aptly reflects the musical collaboration in this band: There’s Motian, painting the dialogue with rough-hewn intellect and unexpectedly showing his age by swinging time through an anecdote; Lovano, delineating history as if quoting Coltrane one moment, speaking deadly serious the next and honking a joke the one after that; and Frisell, the Trio’s most reserved person, coaxing out far fewer words but with an earnestness that offers only what’s thoughtful and necessary.

This band, whose latest ECM release, Time and Time Again, continues a precedent of after-hours abstraction, heartbreaking melodicism and challenging avant-garde music it set a quarter-century ago, is trying to quantify its mostly unquantifiable sound. So far they’re coming up with clichés, something that their music rarely, if ever, does.

“We play together collectively, as a trio, as instrumentalists on our different instruments, and collaborate with sounds and ideas,” Lovano says. That’s fine and true, but plenty of jazz musicians congregate to trade ideas on their instruments, and they don’t pack the Village Vanguard to the gills for two weeks straight or strike the critical gold that this group has.

At this point, anything less than a rave of the Motian Trio seems downright heretical. Writing in The New York Times in 2004, the critic Ben Ratliff praised Motian’s “severely self-edited rhythmic gamesmanship,” Lovano’s “warm, generous spieling” and Frisell’s “beautiful, delicate touch.” Positing on their new recording two issues ago in JT, critic Chris Kelsey wrote: “Drummer Motian’s long-running trio with Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell is a serendipitous assemblage of complementary personalities. … Wonderful music by one of the best bands going.”

Rummaging through the X factors that point up this creative success, you might begin with the obvious: There’s no bass player. Of course, even that constitutes a nonissue.

“Well, one time, I think I [was talking to] Jack DeJohnette, I said, ‘I’ve got a bassless trio.’ And he said, ‘Oh, you mean it’s a trio without bass,'” Motian chuckles about this Yogi Berra-ish exchange.

“We play together in a real collaborative way—spontaneous construction and orchestration within the tunes,” says Lovano. “For me, you don’t feel like there’s no bass. There’s no trumpet, either!”

“Or trombone!” Motian chimes.

Frisell, whose lone chording instrument provides, as Nate Chinen once put it in these pages, “harmonic glue and atmospheric scrim,” saw the lack of low-end as a burden he turned to his advantage. “It definitely opens up … there’s things that you notice—the bass drum, for instance. There are things in all of our sounds—frequencies—that make up a low end,” says Frisell. “I think in the beginning, when we first started doing this, I was constantly trying to make up for [the lack of bass]. It took me a while to get used to that fact. I think that’s where I’m at now: The music just moves forward and it’s OK for there [to be no bass].”

“We’re all playing the changes,” says Lovano, “and the way that the harmonies and structures flow, it’s all there. So we’re all shaping harmonies, we’re all playing the melodies, we’re all playing rhythm. It’s a constant, flowing, moving music, whether we’re playing structured forms on standard-type songs, or an open piece or a more creative structure.”

Those songs and structures are chosen or composed by the drummer, who leads this group, even if that precept gets lost among the synergetic interplay that marks the Trio’s performances. The repertory he’s culled for his band is eclectic, reflecting lifelong affinities—Monk and show tunes—alongside dense out music or impressionistic shards of melody that his younger bandmates repeat, develop and loop into atmosphere that’s nebulous in tone but pristine in attack.

“Some of the songs are brief melodies … a motif or just taking things from the air and going with them. When I’m writing a lot of this stuff, I’m not even thinking about who it’s for. I’m sitting at the piano—and I’m not really a piano player; I can’t play—but I learn a lot by fooling around at the piano, finding different things,” says Motian. “And if something strikes me as particularly valid or happening, then I’ll try and develop it from that. Sometimes I’ll get a song, like a standard song with a bridge, sometimes I’ll get just a short melody. Sometimes it will be something with changes, other times it will be totally open. It’s very free.”

“Free” would be the operative word, but not the freewheeling cacophony the term usually indicates. Frisell’s mentor, guitarist Jim Hall, referencing his highly melodic improv exercises with bassist Ron Carter, once remarked how free pieces were just that: open to go anywhere, as enchanting or alternately dissonant as the players wished them to be. With Motian working in a modern-creative idiom, he understands this better than most. Or, perhaps, it’s his lack of calculation that’s again his saving grace.

Take, for instance, the opening tracks from the group’s ECM “comeback” albums, 2005’s I Have the Room Above Her and Time and Time Again. On the latter’s “Cambodia,” Frisell loops ghostly figures and harmonizes spookier phrases and chords overtop. Motian shades these fragments with splashes of cymbal and brushed strokes against the snare, just he and the guitarist playing for two minutes until Lovano enters with breathy tones. On the former’s “Osmosis Part III,” a theme that is oddly reprised later in the album as “Osmosis Part I,” Motian patters some artful semblance of time on his kit while Lovano arcs a motif and Frisell fills space; looping pizzicato notes and digitally transposing them into percolating stars, all with his trademark timbre—an ethereal one that pulls from reverb- and tremolo-heavy surf and country sounds as much as from standard, round, jazz-guitar warmth. Carter, who collaborated with Frisell and Motian on last year’s Nonesuch release Bill Frisell Ron Carter Paul Motian, said in January that he asked the guitarist not to “play clouds” on one particular tune during those sessions. Under Motian’s guidance, Frisell is free to indulge his penchant for hazy ambience.

“I write what I write and give it to these guys and hope it comes out OK,” says Motian. “‘Cambodia’ came out great, but that’s Bill and what he looped and what he did. What he did was beautiful, and it didn’t have a title when he played it. The title came after we played it. And the title came from [ECM producer] Manfred Eicher; he said, ‘Gee, that sounds like Cambodia,’ and we said, ‘Great. That’s the name of the tune.'”

In plucking covers, Motian often skips any abstract pretenses and goes straight for the sentimental melodies of his youth. “If I hear a song that I like, it gets to my insides. ‘I Have the Room Above Her’ was from [Kern & Hammerstein’s] Show Boat. I was brought up on that music, you know, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, and I played a lot of that shit with Keith Jarrett and Bill Evans. I love a lot of those songs,” he says.

That title track, articulated in a fashion about as conventional as this intrepid group gets, is given surprisingly straight rhythmic treatment by Motian, an expectedly delicate chord-melody by Frisell, and a balmy rendition of the vocal melody by Lovano—who has long been one of the most tender, quixotic interpreters of standards. The group’s recent read of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “This Was Nearly Mine” follows suit. “For me it’s about interpretation of a piece of music. … There are a lot of great soloists who play the same solo on every tune they play, over and over again,” Lovano says later. “I’ve always tried not to be that player, but to let the music have focus and let my imagination take it. And then when you play with others who play like that, there’s a certain focus … and that’s something that happens with maturity. … I think we’re all very melodic players.”

Motian, aside from his reputation as one of jazz drumming’s most tuneful practitioners, can also compose direct, rhapsodic lines and harmonies-compositions Lovano characterizes as “folk-like.” With Motian having named one of his tunes “Folk Song for Rosie” (not to mention his oft-overlooked gig backing Arlo Guthrie at Woodstock), it’s a description the drummer seems to have courted.

“One time we were recording and the singer Renée Fleming came to the session, and at that point we were mixing the music. She saw the [sheet] music in my hand, and she asked me, ‘How do you guys go about playing this music?'” remembers Motian. “I showed her the sheet music and I said, ‘We play this melody.’ She said, ‘Oh, that’s just like classical music. That’s like Handel. That’s just what we do.'”

Reference “K.T.” off the new record, and you’ll hear the drummer juxtapose skittering patterns against his own yearning theme, which evokes some age-old Irish refrain. “Odd Man Out,” off the last record, would be one of the more “standard” songs Motian is talking about, with a bittersweet bridge and a nostalgic resonance. After a few minutes, all this talk about his songs being lovey-dovey prompts Motian to ask, incredulously, “Do you think ‘One Time Out’ is romantic?”

The answer to that question, unless your idea of romance involves courtship with David Lynch, is a resounding “no.” That composition (which Lovano later reveals as one of pianist Ethan Iverson’s Trio favorites) comes from the 1989 Soul Note album of same name and is nothing if not taut. Recorded in Italy in 1987 during the heady, fearless days of the New York Downtown scene Frisell was a principal of, it finds the guitarist in pre-Americana mode, playing fierce distorted lines with an octave pedal while the remainder of the Trio partakes in bona fide new-thing discordance. It’s this fierce avant-gardism that outlines, alongside jazz noir and Motian’s folk songs, the band’s final attitude.

While Frisell’s Tube Screamer is less present on the recent ECM albums (even as current Trio live sets often end with the guitarist picking and bending on overdrive), the group still balances resolution with plenty of tension—more a kind of Ornette-inspired free-bop than the angular, rock-toned postmodern music they engaged in years ago. When “One Time Out” was recorded, the Trio was little more than a half-decade old, and, as Motian admits, very different than it is today.

“That’s an old story, man. I must’ve told it 100 times,” Motian says when pressed about the group’s inception.

But he quickly obliges, so here’s version 101: “It was a quintet; we were on tour in Europe—I guess it was 1980, ’81. We were playing one of my songs, and at one point the tune called for the bass to lie out, and for the other saxophone to lie out. So for a few minutes, it was just Joe and Bill and me playing. And I thought, This could work as a trio. I thought economically it could be good, and musically it would be good. And there had been other trios without bass that had worked: Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Teddy Wilson. So that’s how it started and it developed from there.” The quintet that bore the Trio, another of Motian’s classic ECM groups, included tenor/alto saxist Billy Drewes and bassist Ed Schuller. Tenor saxist Jim Pepper replaced Drewes in 1983.

“When the Trio emerged there was still a two-year period when we were touring quintet and trio, with different repertoire. The quintets were a lot of fun,” says Lovano. “There was a lot of beautiful, creative interplay that happened in those groups. … [The] quintet was a springboard into the Trio, [continuing that] real telepathic communication.”

That clairvoyance is evident on the Paul Motian Quintet’s Psalm, recorded in 1981 at the cusp of what is arguably considered the ECM label’s golden age. Though the lineup is fleshed out, and several tunes are more implicitly rhythmic than anything from a Trio date (Motian plays a rock ‘n’ roll backbeat on “White Magic” and Latin rhythms on the countrified “Mandeville”), it’s no less meditative or adventurous. Psalm was the first ECM date for Lovano; Frisell, who had already recorded for ECM supporting Arild Andersen and Eberhard Weber and was defining himself as Eicher’s go-to ambient guitarist, was just beginning to play with Motian, through a recommendation from Lovano and Frisell’s fellow Berklee classmate Pat Metheny.

“[Pat] just told him I played good and he called me up,” Frisell says with a laugh. (Motian, a guitarist before he was a drummer, has helped develop some of the instrument’s new luminaries, particularly in his Electric Bebop groups. There he employed Kurt Rosenwinkel and Ben Monder in furiously swinging, metal-edged bop that returned the music to its rough-and-tumble origins.)

The Trio would eventually make its recorded debut in 1984 with It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago on ECM—Motian’s last leader session for the label until I Have the Room was released in 2005 (though he would continue contributing to the catalog as a sideman). The Trio recorded over the next two decades for Soul Note (One Time Out) and Stefan Winter’s JMT and Winter & Winter labels, releasing 1988’s Monk in Motian, 1990’s Bill Evans with Marc Johnson, ’91’s live set Motian in Tokyo, ’93’s Trioism (featuring Dewey Redman), ’96’s Motian at Village Vanguard and 1998’s Sound of Love. (Also recommended are the numerous recordings featuring just two Trio members: Bill Frisell Ron Carter Paul Motian and Lovano’s Joyous Encounter [Blue Note, 2005] with Motian, George Mraz and Hank Jones are two outstanding recent examples.)

Throughout the mid- to late 1980s, the group toured Europe and gigged in New York at Michael Dorf’s patchworked Downtown headquarters the Knitting Factory and Visiones, the now-defunct out-music haven located near the Blue Note. “The Knitting Factory was really wide open … you could really play whatever you wanted to play,” says Frisell.

For the last six years, however, the band has held court in that holiest of holy Manhattan jazz clubs, the Village Vanguard, a club whose sacrosanct reputation has much to do with the music Motian recorded there with Bill Evans a half-century ago.

While Lovano and Frisell have developed their own legacies at the Vanguard and become pet bookings of club proprietor Lorraine Gordon, it’s Motian’s heritage at 178 7th Ave. S. that continues to inspire the pair: “To play in the same room … where Paul played with Evans and Keith Jarrett [is incredible]. The Vanguard’s been a part of all three of our lives,” says Lovano.

“We play for two weeks at the Vanguard every year. [That’s] something to look forward to. And the music is always new,” says Motian. Those stands, of which the next will occur Sept. 4-16, find fans making pilgrimages to the wedge-shaped basement club to hear the group live—in fact, it’s their only opportunity since Motian stopped touring around 2004 (“I’m in excellent health. I’m not traveling anymore because I got sick of it!” he told All About Jazz’s Paul Olson last year). Nevertheless, offers for tours and overseas performances continue rolling in.

“I told someone in Germany, ‘Well, you’re going to have to come and hear Paul where he wants to play, so he can take a shower and make dinner in his kitchen,'” says Lovano as Motian and Frisell bust up. “Why should we come to [Germany] so you can have a bratwurst and take a shower after we’ve traveled 30 hours to get there?”

When told how much their recordings resemble their live sets at the Vanguard, the three look pleased, and it’s clear that recreating live interaction is their MO on record. If it isn’t enough that their last two recordings were helmed by ECM honcho Eicher, whose first-take-only, streamlined recording sessions are now something of jazz lore, Motian, in Miles-ian fashion, didn’t give his band music before the session. “For the last two records, we didn’t even hear those tunes before the recording. … I thought that was very brave of Paul,” laughs Frisell.

“There’s a lot of trust here,” adds Lovano.

“The thing about no rehearsals is that we’ve been playing together for years,” amends Motian. “And even if something happens in the tunes—a mistake—it’s not really a mistake. Sometimes I love mistakes!”

“Some of the music we were hearing after first takes or maybe second takes, and we hadn’t even played the tunes. The whole thing is sort of unfolding on the recording,” says Frisell.

As for that elusive ECM sound, it seems that, like the band’s give-and-take and its repertoire, spontaneity—along with gobs of reverb—is paramount.

“Manfred sets it up so that it’s comfortable for you to just play. You don’t have to worry about anything,” says Frisell.

It was Eicher who offered Motian his first leader date, which resulted in 1972’s Conception Vessel with Keith Jarrett, Charlie Haden, guitarist Sam Brown, flutist Becky Friend and the late free-jazz violinist Leroy Jenkins. With a record date looming but no tunes, Motian hurried to gain composition experience. “I started taking piano lessons, music lessons, [getting] familiar with the piano. … Jarrett helped me a lot. … A lot of musicians, friends of mine, helped me, gave me books. If ECM hadn’t given me that opportunity, I might be playing with Lester Lanin now,” Motian laughs.

“I was just thinking about Thelonious Monk. Did you ever talk to Monk or interview Monk?” Motian interjects without prologue. Regretfully not, but the drummer, enamored of the famously eccentric pianist, is jonesing for a good Thelonious chestnut. It’s Monk who’s played idol to Motian ever since the drummer filled in for an absent Arthur Taylor at New York’s Open Door club in the late 1950s. Motian would also play with Monk during a weeklong stint at Boston’s Storyville in 1960.

“I wish I could be like Monk, man, and just wait and think about what I’m gonna say. … I blurt shit out,” says Motian, a decidedly normal guy who admires the pianist’s brilliant and romantic oddball persona. The last two ECM documents saw the group deftly interpret Monk in his two main temperaments: “Dreamland,” off I Have the Room, mirrors its title with elegant chording and softhearted resonance; “Light Blue,” included on Time and Time Again, traverses in bluesy fits and starts like some Chaplin-esque comedy routine.

For Frisell, who’s long favored the pianist’s music while leading his own groups, playing Monk with Motian presents a porthole into history. “Whenever you play with somebody, something rubs off on you. Clearly something of Monk’s rubbed off on Paul. … I saw Monk when I was real young, but that’s the closest I ever got to him. There’s something about that history. When I play those [Monk tunes] with Paul, it’s like being connected right into the bloodline,” he says.

It’s that idea of the drummer as living history that’s impressed Frisell since the beginning. “The first time I played with Paul, the first time I went over his house … [was] with Marc Johnson, and Bill Evans had just passed away. The first tune we played was ‘My Man’s Gone Now,’ and that was such a heavy moment for me. These two guys are talking about [Evans], who’d just passed away, and here I am, this electric guitar player, and they want to play that tune,” he says.

“And me, too,” offers Lovano. “When I played with Marc and Paul in a quartet that was one of the first tunes we played.”

When Motian hired the pair, Frisell and Lovano were promising and innovative sidemen; hopeful, but far from the stalwarts they would become in the 1990s. Lovano would make his leader debut on Soul Note in 1985 with Tones, Shapes and Colors. For Frisell, who debuted under his own name in 1983 with the Arild Andersen-aided ECM solo release In Line, performing with the drummer was integral to his becoming a bandleader. “He was the one who gave me the confidence to start my own band. When you play with Paul … it actually feels like your band. You don’t feel like you’re fitting into some mold. You’re there because he wants you to express yourself. That was a really important confidence-building thing for me,” he says. “My daughter was born in 1985, and it was soon after that I started my own band.”

The Trio has become not only a separate entity in each of these leaders’ careers, but also a conduit, channeling whatever projects and styles they’ve indulged in over the past three decades. “For me, it’s living in a world of music and they all cross,” says Lovano.

“If we don’t play for a while, and I go away and I play for this or that, whatever I do, it’s all gaining experience. And when we come to play again, it’s always cool. … I can play some hillbilly music, I can play anything,” says Frisell. During a Trio set, Frisell might illustrate that sentiment with any number of Nashville-derived techniques: Merle Travis picking, twangy double-stops and pedal-steel-inspired bends make for a singular kind of avant-jazz-honky-tonk.

Even Motian, who in March of last year told NPR’s Terry Gross, “I’m an accompanist” while explaining why he didn’t solo more, often relinquishes his “colorist” pigeonhole to unleash his inner Krupa with the Trio: Cite “Odd Man Out” or Trioism‘s “Cosmology” and “Congestion” for proof that the drummer can solo (and swing) as much as ornament.

For Motian, whose gift and guiding light is his relentless enthusiasm, to continue playing is to continue learning: “Sometimes I might play something I’ve never played before—and I’ve been playing drums for 60, 70 fuckin’ years, man!”


Paul Motian: Drums by Gretsch, cymbals by Zildjian and Paiste

Bill Frisell: Custom Telecaster-style guitar by Jay Black, custom 1X12 amp by Anderson Amplifiers, modified Fender Princeton amp, Ibanez Tube Screamer, BOSS DD-3 delay, DigiTech PDS 8000 Echo Machine delay, Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler, Lexicon MPX 100 (for reverb)

Joe Lovano: Lovano Custom tenor saxophone by Borgani, handmade wooden mouthpiece by François Louis, Alexander Superial Reeds Originally Published

Evan Haga

Evan Haga worked as an editor and writer at JazzTimes from 2006 to 2018. He is currently the Jazz Curator at TIDAL, and his writing has appeared at, NPR MusicBillboard and other outlets.