Strings in Motian

Joel Harrison String ChoirThe Music of Paul Motian (Sunnyside, 2010)

With Paul Motian’s passing recently, a lot of ink has been devoted — rightly so — to his impact as a drummer. He turned the timekeeper’s role into something elastic, an equal voice in a band — accomplished with the help of Bill Evans and Scott La Faro striving for that same balance.

But what about his composing? Motian led his own bands into his rhythmic world, where the pulse and ring of bebop drumming are subsumed into more of a continuous flow, a gentle outpouring. Guitarist Joel Harrison’s string choir — with violins, viola, cello and two guitars — is devoted to exploring that world.

Harrison’s liner notes include a description of Motian’s music that I like: “more suggestion than declaration.” With that in mind, it’s fitting to have a drumless string band interpreting Motian’s music. The melodies swirl and drift. The music is filled with what critics like to call texture. There are themes for the ear to follow, but you often feel more like you’re being enveloped into the music.

My appreciation of this album deepened even more this week when Harrison posted his remembrance of Motian (Facebook login required). Harrison wanted the String Choir to conjure up Motian’s famous elasticity of rhythm, but it wasn’t easy to replicate. “It turns out what he does is something only he can do!” Harrison writes. The answer was to put “wrong” tempos into the charts, codifying a new sense of time into the music.

The album starts with “It Should Have Happened a Long Time Ago.”  It’s a track Motian played with his main trio (Bill Frisell on guitar and Joe Lovano on sax), and while it’s got a definite theme, the trio plays it with a disconnected quality, with Motian’s signature minimalism: tiny taps and rustles just hinting at the rhythm. Harrison’s version starts with two wandering electric guitars (not un-Frisell-like) followed by a cello singing out the theme, actually in stronger rhythm than the original. The music overtly speeds up and slows down at points, just the way string quartets and chamber music do, particularly when the theme comes back at the end.

A song that was probably a deeper challenge was “Conception Vessel.” On the original, Keith Jarrett spells out the theme on piano while Motian does something … else … a slow sculpting of drums that sits outside the rhythm and yet doesn’t describe any other rhythm. It’s the drum equivalent of a soloist jumping outside the key signature. The duet continues like that for seven minutes; it’s a gloriously free-form exercise that still doesn’t stray from its original center of gravity.  Plenty of people do it now, but was it so common in 1973? I don’t know.

Harrison’s version is more compact, at just three minutes, and quite lovely. A guitar solo takes up most of the time, with wisps of chords from a second guitar just hinting at the direction of the piece. The intro carves out the theme with a slow, spacious air.

Motian’s music was not all gossamer and clouds. “Drum Music,” both from the String Choir and Motian’s Lost in a Dream album (ECM, 2009), is snappy and angled, even a bit grumpy (and it gives way to some great soloing from Chris Potter on sax and Jason Moran on piano). In the hands of strings, it becomes an agitated modern-classical piece, loads of fun.

“Drum Music,” with extra agitation by Oliver Lake.

Harrison put two non-Motian tracks on the album: Scott La Faro’s “Jade Visions” (played by the Bill Evans Trio) and “Misterioso,” a nod to Motian’s albums devoted to Monk’s music. “Jade Visions” unfolds with florid patience, a Japanese garden after a spring rain. The melody comes at you more directly than on some of Motian’s compositions, and the long string notes let you savor how delicate some of the chords are. “Misterioso” starts with open-ended plucked strings and plays a few timing tricks with the familiar theme, trying out new rhythmic ideas. It’s a treat.

Of course I have to point out a viola solo. On “Cathedral Song,” Mat Maneri solos with just a touch of rawness — just a touch, not enough to disrupt the delicate mood, even when he hit some high-speed phrases. It’s a highlight, and not just because it’s viola.

If you’re craving more thoughts on Motian, jazz writer Peter Hum has collected several musician remembrances at (at The Ottawa Citizen).  Here’s a link to the Matt Wilson entry, a great read.

You can also find links to media coverage at Avant Music News.

And here’s a quick interview with Harrison about the String Choir, and a performance of “It Should Have Happened Long Ago” at The Stone in NYC.

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