Tim Berne (and Paul Motian) in 1983

Tim BerneMy First Tour: Live in Brussels (Screwgun, 2017)

berne-firstIt’s a lo-fi cassette recording but wholly satisfying, and a nice little slice of history.

My First Tour is a 1983 recording that Tim Berne is giving away on Bandcamp. It’s in the same spirit as the Unwound triple-CD that documented Berne’s Bloodcount quartet in concert (more on that in a later post).

“Why am I doing this?” Berne writes. “Because I think this has a side of Paul Motian that maybe isn’t well documented and worth hearing.”

True. Motian is often raucous and aggressive in this session, capped by his solo at the excerpt of “Mutant of Alberan.”

It’s not as if Motian hasn’t played loudly before. I remember him having a similarly dynamic solo on Keith Jarrett’s The Survivors’ Suite. That “Alberan” solo gets outright vicious, though. You get to hear the rawness behind the performance, and that’s an aspect that elevates this recording, as it did with Unwound.

Elsewhere, Herb Robertson delivers a tremendous trumpet solo on “Flies,” going absolutely nuts, backed by Motian’s high-speed brushwork. And if you want to hear Motian in a more contemplative mood, there’s “No Idea,” which lingers pensively around Motian’s sense of open non-timekeeping.

“Tin Ear” is one of the songs that I don’t think ever made it onto an album, and it’s a blast. After a swingy start, Berne kicks into fast free jazz, with Motian’s furious rhythm. That track has another raucous Motian solo as well.

I enjoy hearing alternate versions of tunes, so this collection is a treat from that standpoint as well. There’s more where this came from, on the 5-CD Empire Box that documents Berne’s early albums with Robertson, Motian, Alex Cline, Nels Cline, Vinny Golia, and more. Discs 4 and 5 are on Bandcamp.

UPDATE 11/22: Discs 1 through 3 are now on Bandcamp as well: The Five-Year Plan, 7X, and Spectres.

Motian Studies

Paul Motian’s recent passing got me examining some of the albums I’ve bought over the years that happen to include him.

A couple of these purchases came in the wake of discovering Tim Berne’s Bloodcount on the JMT label. I started snapping up all things JMT — and the label was already defunct, which perversely added to the fun. Anyway, it turns out Motian showed up on a lot of those albums. (Stefan Winter has since revived the entire catalog on Winter & Winter — where you’ll also find a PDF-formatted obit for Motian, cataloging his JMT output.)

Tethered Moon — s/t (JMT, 1995) ….. This one was hard for me at first. On the slow tracks, the music just seemed to sit there. Years later I would reconsider, having gotten more accustomed to less “busy” styles of music.  It’s a Kurt Weill collection, but the songs don’t have the Weill-like tension and drama. Sometimes, the band comes across as a regular piano trio, with Masabumi Kikuchi showing some Keith Jarrett-like leanings, down to the funny-voiced singing alongside his piano lines. But for some patches, this album becomes a celebration of inner stillness, colored by Motian’s delicious brushwork and the rich, resonating wood of Peacock’s bass.

Wolfgang Muthspiel — Perspective (Verve, 1996) ….. The opening “Gang of 5” held me spellbound on first listen. It’s expansive and open-aired, a landscape built on Motian playing a groove without a steady beat. He’s busily riding the cymbals and the snare in a very jazz-like way, but if you try to “spell” the beat in your head, you’ll be foiled. Above this, Muthspiel spins weeping lines on violin and Marc Johnson follows with mournful bowed bass. Eventually, Muthspiel switches to electric guitar for some free soloing over Motian’s non-groove.

On “No You Hang Up First,” you get to hear Motian assigned to play a straight 2/4 beat. Of course, it doesn’t stay that way, and the composition includes a breakdown passage where Motian gets to open up the rhythm.

My recollection is that I bought Perspective on a whim in Europe. It sure looks like a JMT release, but the label says just “Verve” — which did acquire JMT and printed its catalog for a sort time — and I can’t find Muthspiel’s name in the Winter & Winter reissue series.

Paul Motian and The Electric Bebop Band — Reincarnation of a Love Bird (JMT, 1994) ….. Hey, you get to hear Motian play regular swing! Sort of. The slower tracks like Monk’s “Ask Me How” get a swing infused with Motian’s airy treatment, those light, light taps on the cymbals. He’s in more straightahead mode on  some faster ones like Miles’ “Half-Nelson,” and you get to hear a nifty bebop solo from him on “Be-Bop.” I get the feeling this band started as Motian’s way of cutting loose a little bit, in a be-bop sense. (Ironically, by “cutting loose” I actually mean “giving in to jazz’s normal constraints.”) This album used a two-sax, two-guitar format for an exciting, busy sound in some places; Don Alias’ percussion sounds nice but seems like a bit much over Motian’s drumming, sometimes.

This one’s a JMT issue that you can’t get on Winter & Winter; it’s sold out!

Keith Jarrett ….. you know what, I’m not gonna call out a title. That whole mid-’70s period, with Dewey Redman (sax), Charlie Haden (bass), and Motian — those were glorious years. I had to pillage the used bins for Backhand, Bop-Be, El Juicio, and Mysteries, but you can find them all on CD now, thankfully. (Or online; I’m linking to eMusic there, but plenty of other outlets have them.) I think each album includes one “weird” track, one that departs from Jarrett’s snappy-yet-open jazz and goes into complete experimental strangeness, often in a slow, pensive mood. And then there’s The Survivors’ Suite, which I’ve called out previously. I’ve thought about these more than actually listening to them in the past couple weeks, so maybe they shouldn’t count here.

Paul Motian — Conception Vessel (ECM, 1973) ….. I hadn’t heard this one before, though I was aware of it (and other Motian ’70s gems) in the KZSU vinyl library. I’d mentioned it in discussing Motian’s composing, in my review of Joel Harrison’s tribute album. It’s Motian’s first album as a leader, and he tests the waters in so many areas. Sam Brown’s guitar plays rough-and-tumble on “Rebica” but still foreshadows the drifting role Bill Frisell would play for Motian later. The title track is a duet with Jarrett, both players exploring loosely connected territories with a spacious ferocity. “Inspiration from a Vietnamese Lullabye” puts Leroy Jenkins’ violin alongside Becky Friends’ flute in a downright vicious, emotional jam.

Most of these tracks have a younger Motian playing powerfully, with lots of cymbals, still resonating with the heat of the ’60s. He’s certainly not adhering to timekeeping, but neither is the sound dominated by his magician’s subtlety with blank spaces. I like the results a lot.

Of course, Motian’s catalog has a lot more to it. These are just the things I’d grabbed off the shelf, so to speak.

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 jazzblog.ca (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.