Forgotten series: Paul Motian – I Have The Room Above Her (2005)

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by Mark Saleski

You wouldn’t suppose that most musicians would look favorably upon being compared to an old pile of rocks. How about an old, organized pile of rocks?

This isn’t some kind of clever reviewer trick. Honestly, it’s just a coincidence. While giving Paul Motian’s I Have The Room Above Her the first listen, I happened to have a nice view out the bedroom window. Through the maples and oaks beside our antique house, an old rock wall can be seen curving up and over the next ridge.

A few moments before focusing my gaze through the rippled glass, I had been trying to pin down what is is that makes Motian unique. A drummer who favors subtlety over bombast, Motian seems to simultaneously construct a pulse and contribute to the melody by employing an endless supply of accents.

Hmmm … nice, but not quite there yet.

Then it hit me. It’s not just Motian’s technique. It’s his entire history as a jazz musician. The more I listen, the more his past reveals itself. This idea resonated with a concurrent interest in the stone walls of New England. Having recently moved to the historic district of a small rural town, I had an opportunity to observe many walls up close … and to ruminate on their past (and future). Just like a jazz composition is not merely a collection of notes, a stone wall is not just a pile of rocks. That wall outside our window frames what used to be a ‘highway’, one that originated from what is now the base of our driveway. If you observe the fragments of stone walls laced throughout my little area, the story of the past is revealed.

Does Paul Motian’s music in the present reveal anything about his past? Without a doubt. The list of Motian’s past cohorts is most impressive: Coleman Hawkins, Lennie Tristano, Thelonious Monk, George Russell, Paul Bley, Keith Jarrett, Carla Bley. Big names all. Add to the list one more giant: Bill Evans. Motian played in the Bill Evans Trio for several years alongside bassist Scott LaFaro. I came to Bill Evans’ music not it the ‘normal’ way (via Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue) but through Motian’s Bill Evans. A fine record on which long-time partners Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano put a unique spin on Evans’ music.

Though Motian has at times branched out into more “out” music as compared to the Bill Evans Trio, it is his sound on those Evans records that shines through to this day. I Have The Room Above Her again featured Frisell and Lovano on a program of mostly Paul Motian compositions, plus a pair of covers: a very cool take on Monk’s “Dreamland” and the Kern/Hammerstein title track. Several of the tunes, most notably “Osmosis” (parts III and I), “Shadows” and “Harmony”, fully illustrated Motian’s way of dancing around the composition. It’s just amazing what the man can do with a pair of brushes, a snare and a single ride cymbal. On these songs, Lovano tended to follow Motian’s lead, adding color on top of accent. Frisell was at his toned-down best, gently grasping clusters of notes into chords. All was not quiet here though. There’s some nifty unison play on “Dance” and “The Bag Man” as well as some full-on skronkology on “The Riot Act”.

OK, so maybe I think too much. Maybe that stone wall is just a pile of rocks. And maybe I Have The Room Above Her was just another record. I just can’t think that way. Music is important and projects itself onto many, many ‘unrelated’ areas. Spend a little time looking (and listening) and you’ll be amazed at what’s out there.

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