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The great Charlie Haden passed away Friday, July 11, and tributes of all kinds have been appearing over the past two days. I hadn’t really realized how many records in my collection Charlie Haden had appeared on; his bass playing, his sound, has been a pivotal and essential part of much of my listening. I saw him a few times in concert. Once, with his Quartet West on a double bill with John Scofield’s quartet at the Orpheum in Vancouver; and once, very memorably, with Geri Allen and Paul Motian in Montreal, as part of the 1989 invitational series. I wanted to write something in his memory; for some reason, I found myself thinking of the Kurt Weill/Ogden Nash standard “Speak Low,” an evocative version of which Charlie Haden performed with Sharon Freeman for Lost in the Stars, a Hal Willner tribute to Kurt Weill. The song leads back to Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, but I have also recently been pretty heavily under the sway of Nathaniel Mackey’s word music, so some echoes of that must have found their way into this piece. It was composed very quickly, so I’m sure there are a few rough edges and infelicities, but I’ll leave them in to honour the improvisational drift of Charlie Haden’s music.
Partial Elegy for Charlie Haden
Already gone too soon, other than him
who in this fraught hereafter could have named
the ruminant lumber his instrument
had been assembled from? Dark-toned boxwood,
hickory, lacquered spruce. Coaxing a deep
murmur from heavy-gauge strings, propounding
their full-bodied, hefty resonances,
he re-curved chthonic rumble into line
and cadence, his trademark over-fingered
pizz and tectonic double-stops marking
the thick eddies where sound and purled silence
abutted, then let go: a politics
of left-leaning, strung-out torch-songs that tell
you, “Speak low if you mean to speak at all.”
I have been trying for some time to find proper, better words to describe what has now come to seem like my own very long commitment to the music of percussionist Paul Motian, who died nearly two years ago. His particular feel, the way in which his music characteristically unfolded and continues to unfold, sui generis, both temporally and spatially, has had a sustained effect on how I have begun to think about the poetic apprehension of time, the material experience of the human body in its textiles, its welter and wash. It sounds so generic, so mundane, so less than momentous, to say: for some time. And maybe I only mean to play on the titles of some of Motian’s compositions, which also both thematize the experience and elegize the ineffability of the temporal: “It should have happened a long time ago.” So I feel like I’m trying here, but inevitably falling short, even before I seem able to get started. But I think that this halting phenomenology might have something to do with the specifics of Paul Motian’s sound. Because there’s a semantic and temporal gap, a kind of hiatus particular to Motian’s sense of line and rhythm, that opens around the question of the thesis, Θέσις: of the subtle incursion of, say, a dancer’s footfall, of the give-and-take around every singular, embodied, creative pulse, step upon step. In Motian’s playing, each beat, each thesis, doesn’t drop into the lockstep of fixed metre, even when he plays in time, but tends to exist as a stroke, a temporal marker, relative only to the beat that preceded it; Motian always seems to be feeling his way forward through time itself, testing its viscosities, its resistances, its eddies, its flows. His sense of measure is tensile, and a little precarious: simultaneously countable and protean, refrained and free.
I have been listening to Shadow Man, the second recording by Tim Berne’s Snakeoil quartet released (last week) by ECM records. I haven’t made it through to the end of the CD yet, because each time I put it into the player, I’m brought up short by the third track, a duo version – by Berne on alto and Matt Mitchell on piano – of Paul Motian’s composition “Psalm.” I had forgotten that Motian played on Berne’s Mutant Variations and The Ancestors on Soul Note (both 1983) and also on his early Songs and Rituals in Real Time (Empire, recorded 1981); their musics, even then, appeared to share something of a preoccupation with rhythmic knotting and unknotting. In a 2009 interview with Ethan Iverson, Berne describes his first encounter with Motian:
I met Paul Motian when he was doing a gig with the bass player Saheb Sarbib. And I just went up to him and I asked him. And to this day I have no idea how I got the nerve. But he sort of said “Yeah, man, send me something,” or whatever. I may have given him a record or sent him a tape. I called him up a couple of weeks later and asked him if he listened to it, and he said “No.” But then he said, “Yeah, whatever, I’ll do the gig.” And that was this gig that turned into this record. . . . And Paul was great. I don’t know why I didn’t know to be more frightened. I think I got more terrified when we did a tour, because then I was like “Holy shit, I’m on the road with Paul Motian.” There are two Soul Note records with Paul too, and he plays just great on them.
Berne’s version of “Psalm” offers a lyrical tribute to this yes-and-no meeting, but, fittingly, also audibly remarks on Motian’s posthumous absence: it’s performed drummerless, and fluidly rubato. (Notably, Russ Lossing has also made a brilliant solo piano CD of Motian compositions, Drum Music [Sunnyside, 2012], that theatizes the composer’s absence in a similar fashion, but which is also wonderfully attentive to the prod and pull of Motian’s lines.) The openness and the looseness of the duo’s time feel is wholly appropriate to Motian’s music. The melody, lightly fragmented by Mitchell’s right hand, is not especially definitive, and seems to emerge, to find its feet so to speak, out of an undifferentiated gentle swathe of long tones, here played sotto voce by Berne; on the original version by the Paul Motian Band – “Psalm” is the title track and the first cut on Motian’s 1982 ECM lp – the core line of the song (and many of Motian’s compositions consisted of not much more than melodic fragments) wells up tenuously from layers of saxophone, guitar and bass. In his liner notes to the ECM boxed set of Motian recordings that appeared earlier this year, also from ECM, Ethan Iverson describes how “Psalm” “begins like an emission from deep space before a chorale comes into focus.” And he’s not wrong: Iverson has keen, practiced ears, and he hears a kind of primal rhythm behind all of Motian’s playing, a well-defined, historically-informed sense of jazz time: “With Paul,” he wrote in a New York Times obit,“there was always that ground rhythm, that ancient jazz beat lurking in the background.” But I’m not sure I agree with him, or, at least I don’t know if I hear the same sense of beat he does. For me, Motian’s playing, at its best, digs into that ground, destabilizes it, turns it over. His time extends, distends, undoes and reknits the whole sense of primal beat, of pulse. In the Berne-Mitchell version of “Psalm,” I think, a pliable tactility – the gesture toward measure and the soft refusal to fall into a countable frame – manifests, and reminds me, as I listen, of the ways in which Motian’s music wants to open both into time and out of it: to extemporize. That opening – sensible as hiatus or absence, certainly, but also as push, as motion, as the forward heft of a given line – seems to me to form a crucial aspect of Paul Motian’s legacy.
One more brief note. I only saw Motian play live once, in Montreal in 1989 during the Charlie Haden invitational series early that July. I was at the gig – released as part of The Montreal Tapes – by the Haden-Motian collaborative piano trio with Geri Allen. What I remember most about that concert was that it was over too soon. There wasn’t enough time. It slipped away. Motian’s warm, flexible rhythmic touch is in evidence from the very first notes, on Haden’s fittingly titled “Blues in Motian.” I feel like I need to listen to that record again.
Freedom in the Air is a powerful suite for quartet, improvised to accompany a projection of iconic, historic photographs (by James Karales and others) of events in the American Civil Rights movement. A group led by trumpeter Barry Long, and including saxophonist David Pope, bassist Joshua Davis and percussionist Phil Haynes, performed the music at the Campus Theatre of Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, on 23 February 2012; the performance was recorded on video, which can be viewed online through the university’s website. The compact disc or download is available for purchase from bandcamp.com. It’s a great recording, well worth buying.
The music is ekphrastic; sounds are keyed to visuals, sometimes providing auditory allegories – as in the fifth section, “Fifteen Minutes in Birmingham,” when the racial violence depicted in the photographs draws discordant, harsh responses from the players – but more often acting as reactive contemplation, a kind of aural commentary. For musical source material, Long draws on spirituals and protest songs, many of them from African-American religious and social traditions from the southern states, many of them performed by participants in the marches and protests to which the images bear historical witness. (Two pieces come from elsewhere than the American public domain, but both are deeply enmeshed in the civil rights soundscape: John Coltrane’s “Reverend King” – posthumously issued on his album Cosmic Music – and the song that provides the suite’s title, “Freedom in the Air” by Bernice Johnson Reagon.) Watching the video, you can see how attentive to and how focused on these images the members of the quartet remain, throughout the performance. The photos act not so much as score but as timbral palette, setting the tone.
Without the visuals, the music still works incredibly well, but as a meditative rather than a contemplative tone-poem. Things open with Long solo on flugelhorn, intoning Reagon’s melody as an autumnal taps, framing what follows from the quartet in a largely elegiac register. The music on the whole is consistently measured and self-aware, rarely venturing beyond a medium tempo, but it’s also deeply evocative, entrancing, awash in genuine pathos. I have been trying for a few days to think of an analogue for this group’s sound, and the closest I can come is, perhaps, Paul Motian’s trios with Charles Brackeen (whose firm, deliberate tenor saxophone tone David Pope sometimes seems to echo). Phil Haynes’s drumming can occasionally be subtly unruly, gently but firmly disrupting easy agreements. Collectively, the quartet tends to refuse sentimentality or nostalgia in favour of a lyrically incisive and open-eared historicism, giving difficult episodes in a shared national past a present-tense relevance, a contemporaneity. Improvisation creates a set of contingent segues between what’s been done and what still happens, and invites us to consider, to reconsider, how negotiating these cultural challenges can vitally matter to us even now, especially now.
The manoeuvres between the contemplative and the meditative, between the reactive and the expressive, that this performance undertakes can be better addressed, I think, by looking at the video, and paying attention to the intensity of the musicians’ focus – how they themselves look at the on-screen images. Three of the four members of the quartet are academics, and two hold doctorates: I mention this fact to suggest that, if this music is to be understood as scholarship, there is no sense of clinical detachment or analytic objectivity here. The historical engagements they undertake are, instead, consistently creative, vital and moving. It’s also worth noting – although it’s a bit presumptuous on my part – that none of the musicians appears to have a visibly African-American heritage; given that they are playing through such thoroughly racially-inflected terrain, they might tend to be positioned as outsiders or onlookers. But Long’s point in presenting this music, I’d say, is to suggest that we are all – regardless of where we might think we come from or how we look – implicated in this cultural history, and that we need not only to be self-aware of that enmeshment, but also to actively negotiate our social subjectivities, building communities not necessarily through unproblematic identifications – such as similarities of appearance or background – but through our encounters with difference, with our own inherent differences. Barry Long’s music makes one such set of encounters sing. The video ends with a minute-long spontaneous silence that the CD can’t include, but it’s also one of the most powerful musical moments in the performance: a space of thoughtful, respectful exchange onto which this fleetingly profound music opens, helps us open.
Roscoe Mitchell’s new, eponymous album on Wide Hive records presents him, as composer and as improviser, in shifting configurations: in a trio with himself on saxophones (alternately sopranino, alto and bass), Hugh Ragin on trumpet and Tyshawn Sorey at the drum kit; in duo (on flute and alto sax) with Sorey, who switches to piano for two of the three tracks; and solo with a set of percussion miniatures, played on what in his work with The Art Ensemble of Chicago used to be called “little instruments,” which would include everything from small tuned gongs to found objects. The album is sequenced as an extended palindrome, solo-duo-trio-[solo-trio-duo-trio-solo]-duo-trio-solo, creating an interlace of varying sound-textures while also suggesting recurrence, a cyclical symmetry.
Mitchell’s solos all involve delicately a-metrical plunks and tintinnabulations; he has recorded similar percussion pieces on previous solo projects, but here they feel artfully succinct and carefully realized. Striking his tabletop array of wooden blocks and metallophones with compact sticks and mallets, he produces fleeting, irregularly cadenced clusters of pulses and beats. Time takes on a certain plasticity in these brief performances, as Mitchell alternatively presses toward and draws back from an implied downbeat, a centred measure that never quite arrives. Time hangs between counted and uncountable, openings and distensions, small extemporaneities, spaces. His saxophone tone is always fully-blown, reedy and firm, but his pitch – like his rhythmic sense – often seems to skirt around its centres, as he deliberately manipulates micro-pressures of breath and embouchure to stretch and pull the notes just slightly sharp or flat, creating subtly thrumming layers of detuned harmonics. This plasticity is a hallmark of Roscoe Mitchell’s sound, as I hear it, his improvised lines pushing and tugging at their audible edges.
Tyshawn Sorey’s drumming develops a similar kind of temporal openness, and his sense of auditory space recalls for me some of the work of Paul Motian and Jerome Cooper, and – perhaps echoing a little of Roscoe Mitchell’s early Old/Quartet sessions – Phillip Wilson. I love his playing here, working a middle zone between pulse and arrhythmia. His piano is also compelling; his touch can be hard, but Sorey uses what could potentially be taken for an underdeveloped pianism to great advantage, treating the piano the way maybe it should be treated, as percussion. On “A Game of Catch,” he starts by thrumming and plucking inside the instrument, working the interstices of Mitchell’s melodic fragments. But I especially like his playing on “The Way Home,” where he develops waves and surges, dispersions and clusters, that feel reminiscent to me of Sam Rivers’s piano forays with his trios and with Dave Holland. Sorey’s playing evinces a compellingly nascent rhythmatizing – texturally, a marked contrast from his Morton Feldman-influenced “Permutations for Solo Piano” on his 2007 release That/Not (although, as sound conceptualists, both Sorey and Mitchell are not that far removed from Feldman’s interest in resonance and refrain, what a recent article in The Guardian called “the substance of sound”). And Hugh Ragin is excellent throughout the record, drawing on sonic vocabularies developed in his Sound Pictures for Solo Trumpet(Hopscotch, 2002, a CD that featured his own compositions as well as a suite by Wadada Leo Smith). A master of free improvisation, Ragin evokes at times in his tone and attack the clarion spectre of Louis Armstrong, at others the more laser-like inflections of Lee Morgan: his playing is that fine, that good. I could listen to him all night and day.
Centripetally and centrifugally, convergent and divergent, the music of Mitchell, Sorey and Ragin explores the elastic and uneasy verges of time present, wanting to make its ragged limits sing.