Motian Sickness – For The Love Of Sarah (2011)

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photos by Bethany Bandera

Less than two months ago the great jazz drummer, composer and bandleader Paul Motian passed away at eighty years old, in what was arguably the most substantial loss in the jazz world of 2011. He left behind a legacy that’s been well documented on this site, so I won’t get into all that here. Instead, this space is devoted to addressing one last addition to that vast legacy during Motian’s lifetime.

For The Love Of Sarah isn’t a Motian album per se, but an album of ten of his compositions, performed by a group assembled expressly for this project, Motian Sickness. The man holding down the “Motian” chair, drummer Jeff Cosgrove, discussed this project with the great master himself over a three year period, which led to Motian sending him ten compositions to record. In February of last year, Cosgrove recorded these scores with John Hébert (double bass), Mat Maneri (viola) and Jamie Masefield (mandolin). The record was quietly released in September and Motian lived to hear the results.

The first striking thing about For The Love Of Sarah are the weapons chosen to attack Motian’s dense, mystifying and emotional pieces of work. Replace the drums for, say, a cello and the violia for its close cousin the violin and you’ve got the same configuration used to make a recent Appalachian record featuring Yo-Yo Ma. On some level, there’s a connection between the two records, if only that they share some similar timbres and the musicians in both cases are exceptional. Motian loved to used unconventional instrumentation in his ensembles over his career as a leader. I don’t think he’s ever used a near-bluegrass combination like this, but I have no doubt he thought this was a great idea, because its fits in so well with his strong inclination for musical adventure.

Motian never really wrote songs to fit a single approach for playing them, anyway. The guys in Motian Sickness teaches us that the cool thing about Motian’s music is that he made them wide open enough for allowing a wide range of interpretations. It’s a point that first became clear in the 80’s when Bill Frisell applied applied a wide array of stylings to Motian’s songs, from country to avant garde, and it all made came together even though the sounds were often foreign to what is normally thought of as “jazz.”. When tenor saxman Joe Lovano was added but not a bass player, it made sense too. Motian Sickness merely takes that idea out a little further.

Just as Motian would do, Cosgrove is constantly improvising behind the band, creating percussional motifs from which everything else springs from; that gets to the heart of what’s unique about this music. You quickly get a sense of that approach on “Dance” (YouTube below), which begins with Cosgrove and Hébert rummaging around asymmetrically, and yet perfectly locked into each other. Maneri and Masefield enter the picture a little later, adding additional tonal layers on Cosgrove’s foundation, together eking out the main melodic idea from the song, Maneri bowing it and Masefield plucking it. The rumble of “Dance” makes way for the free-form beauty of “Conception Vessel,” one of Motian’s first songs as a leader. The song possesses the flow of a symphony, highlighted by the presence of Maneri’s viola but also, surprisingly, Masefield’s sensitive mandolin and Cosgrove’s tympani-like maneuvering. “Arabesque”, the other extended track on this album, moves is a similar way.

“The Storyteller” is musically a story about tension, created by Maneri and Hébert’s conjoined bowing. Hébert spins a sweet line, Charlie Haden style, for “From Time To Time,” and the viola alternatively plucking and bowing a waltz sets the tone for “The Story Maryam,” one of the more folkish tunes in this collection. Elsewhere on the album, Masefield can be heard soloing his mandolin over impossibly odd shapes created by Hébert and Cosgrove (“Mumbo Jumbo”, “For The Love Of Sarah,” “One Time Out”), often taking the root and creating something harmonious with it amidst the chaos swirling around him.

Elegant as it’s often turbulent, For The Love Of Sarah accurately captures the essence of Paul Motian. A tribute record performed while he was still alive, it now becomes a fitting posthumous salute to an immensely creative soul.

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