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Drummerless, on Paul Motian

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.

Short Live Take on Tim Berne Snakeoil

[A headnote: I’m coming back to this post a day later to do a little revising and correcting. My intention with these “short takes” was to do as little revising or reworking as possible, but in this case there were some small issues that really needed to be fixed. I had the titles of the compositions wrong in my first pass, so these needed to be amended. (Thanks to Matt Mitchell for kindly letting me know the real titles.) I’m also sure that I misperceived some of the music, hearing Berne’s new pieces as versions of older work on the issued recording. Such misprisions are a hazard of being less than intimate with the scores, and of hearing this music for the first time. But the fact remains, as well, that – given what I hope is a genuine effort to map out my own auditory affect, to explain and to frame as cleanly as possible what I thought I heard and about how I was hearing it (and given, also, the challenges of the adjective, of being as descriptively accurate as I can) – that a mistaken listening seems to me as potentially interesting to think through as an attention that’s either distracted or that falsely claims acuity or expertise. I’m no music reviewer, and don’t want to pretend to be. But writing through and about the situated reception of music, particularly the immediacy of an improvised performance, which is inherently non-repeatable or, as Vladimir Jankélévitch suggests, irreversible, strikes me as a possible practice, if it works, of an active “cultural memory in the present” (a phrase I’m lifting from Mieke Bal, who repurposed it from others). So, okay, here is the revised piece.]
Tim Berne‘s quartet Snakeoil (with Oscar Noriegaon clarinet and bass clarinet, Matt Mitchell on piano and electric piano, and Ches Smithon drums, vibes and hand percussion) played a four-tune, 75 minute set at Ironworks on the final evening of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival. Berne announced the first three compositions as something like “Lamé #2,” ” Lamé #3″ and ” Lamé #1″ (in that order), but he was also slightly, well, mumbly and off-mike, so I could easily have misheard. “Don’t judge me by my titles,” he told us. It’s not that the titles had any obvious meaning for me (Berne’s music is hardly proximate to flashy pop or disco, and I’ve never seen him dress in gold lamé), but that Berne was indicating how each of the pieces formed part of a larger conception, and there was definitely a sense in which all four fit together rhythmically, harmonically and texturally. As with his earlier Bloodcountbook, his compositions tend to use long, sinewy lines — angular, deliberate meanders often taken in unison or at least in parallel paired horns and (in this band) piano. They are also constructed — again, as far as I can make out, as a listener  in sections that, like shifting puzzle pieces, seem to lock together in various kinds of timbral juxtapositions and sequences. He counted in each piece in four, but as the quartet joined in the music instantly became more metrically dense and polyrhythmic. Overlapped sonorities created fluctuating densities, an alternately thickening and winnowing counterpoint. With his move to ECM for his latest recording (by this quartet), his open-form compositional style — mixing structural exactitude with free improvisation —  seems to me to draw at times on the work of Jimmy Giuffre, although the performances leave aside any latter-day chamber music feel in favour of harder edges and more aggressively articulated extemporizing. The fourth and last composition was announced as “OCDC” (maybe?), but listening back to the Snakeoil CD it felt to me – wrongly, as it turns out – that it was an expanded, roomier version of “Spare Parts”; I thought in retrospect (again, mistakenly) the third piece they played was also a re-arrangement of “Scanners” from the same disc. (The bass-line in Matt Mitchell’s left hand sounded remarkably close to what I can hear on the recording.) I’m sure that this sort of musical re-purposing was not really what was going on (and I’m not at all asserting that this music is somehow recycled), but what my perception of these echoes does suggest to me is not only the continuity, the organics, of Berne’s concept but also that the audience was hearing not so much product as process, compositions built from predetermined cells and segments that also relied on formal elasticity and focused improvisation to expand, to animate and flesh out a given set of sounds into new and immediate music. I was very impressed by the unthrottled drive of Matt Mitchell’s playing, by the rough ecstatic energy of Oscar Noriega’s solos, by Ches Smith’s expansive and propulsive sense of time, and by Tim Berne’s own brilliantly knotty phrasing. Berne’s group offered us an object lesson in colliding composition and spontaneity, the made and the making, to intensify a performance, and to bring it creatively, with measured noisy poise, to life.