Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Rhythm, Melody, Sound and Style - Learning to Listen

By now, anybody who is a fan of jazz knows that Paul Motian died Tuesday morning (the link to the obituary in the New York Times is here).  The drummer/composer had a wonderfully long career, beginning in the late 1950s and a stint with pianist Bill Evans and truly coming to notice with Keith Jarrett in the 1970s. 

But, his CDs as a leader on Black Saint, ECM and Winter & Winter is what most fans of his music love him for.  Motian did not really follow fashions; instead he created pieces that opened improvisational doors for his fellow musicians while he (usually) eschewed the spotlight.  He played alongside bassist Charlie Haden in a number of projects (besides the Jarrett "American" Quartet, they recorded with a series of wonderful CDs with pianist Geri Allen) and had a long-standing trio with guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist Joe Lovano.  Motian recorded standards as well as Broadway show tunes and bebop swingers while his own compositions were often, in later years, ballads with long melody lines.  His recent work with saxophonist Bill McHenry, pianists Frank Kimborough and Russ Lossing and trumpeter Enrico Rava displayed his "minimalist" tendencies.  Paul Motian did not "swing" like the bebop drummers he grew up listening to; more likely he was constructing percussive "cushions" for soloists and space for bassists to create counterpoint. If you pay attention to the sound of his drums on the ECM CDs with Frissell and Lovano, he plays as much melody as they do as well his own aural sound-scapes that captured the ear without overwhelming the songs.  Still, he was no slouch when it came to playing rhythms and there are a slew of recordings to back up that claim. 

There should be plenty of well-deserved tributes to Paul Motian - on the eve of Thanksgiving, one should give thanks he had such a long and often fascinating career. Terry Gross chatted with Motian in 2006 and it gives great insight into his style - go to www.npr.org/2006/03/13/5256495/paul-motians-jazz-garden-of-eden.  Then, listen to him put his ideas to work in this 2008 live gig from the Village Vanguard, a place that was Motian's home away from home (especially in the later years of his career when he rarely left New York City.  Go to www.npr.org/2011/06/10/94206624/paul-motian-bill-frisell-joe-lovano-live-at-the-village-vanguard and enjoy the ride. 

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