Paul Motian – Paul Motian ECM box set (2013)

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By the time Paul Motian had passed away in November of 2011, he had established a legacy that reaches far beyond a couple of historical evenings at the Village Vanguard in late June of 1961. But becoming known as something much more than Bill Evans’ drummer within arguably jazz’s greatest trio didn’t happen overnight.

Motian stuck around in Evans’ outfit for just a couple of more years before gigs with two other piano greats, Paul Bley and Keith Jarrett, that latter stint lasting more than a decade. When he signed up with ECM Records and made his first album as a leader in 1972, Paul Motian was already 41 years old. With that beginning, he spent the last half of his life gradually building up an impressive body of work through recordings, performances, songwriting and mentoring.

Next week, ECM Records will honor this great percussionist, composer and bandleader with a box set covering that first album, Conception Vessel and the following five ECM releases on through 1984’s It Should Have Happened A Long Time Ago. These half dozen records make up only a fraction of his discography but effectively set the direction and cast the die for all Motian works that followed.

A subtly sublime rhythmist and ingenious colorist, Motian charted a path that was decidedly apart from the one that Evans forged and even Bley and Jarrett, though he was more outwardly influenced in his solo output by those latter two. It’s interesting to note that like with Paul Desmond’s solo recordings, Motian didn’t include a pianist in any of these sessions, save for Jarrett’s notable appearance on “Conception Vessel” a cascading torrent of notes set against Motian’s responsive sway. Aside from that rule, intentional or not, Motian first experimented with configurations before eventually settling on a bass-less trio of guitar (Bill Frisell) and tenor sax (Joe Lovano).

It’s convenient, therefore, to think of these six albums in terms of three pairs distinguished by how he deployed the instruments. The first two, Conception Vessel and Tribute are marked by shifting lineups, often from song to song, but anchored by Motian, bassist Charlie Haden and guitarist Sam Brown. Introducing his music as ambitious, unconventional and highly improvisational, Motian’s mixture of fury and atmospheric calm actually fit well alongside some of the other early ECM’s, such as the ones by Jan Garbarek and Dave Holland. But where as those guys grew more accessible, Motian remained with at least one foot on the outside.

Brown’s soft, flamenco-styled acoustic guitar graced such numbers as “Georgian Bay,” “Victoria” and “Song For Che,” featuring three of the original performers of that song (Haden/Motian/Brown). Brown plays such unusually spaced out thorny lines with an electric guitar on “Ribeca.” But it’s Haden’s bass that grounds these songs no matter how ambiguous the harmonic progression gets; it’s like a beacon confidently guiding listeners through the near-chaos in the same way he enabled the uninitiated make it through the strange harmolodics of Ornette Coleman’s songs.

Motian often plays with a low but steady fire in a manner that’s like no one else save for perhaps Barry Altschul. On other occassions he’s dispensing with timekeeping altogether and showering the others with textures but harmonious and exotic, without having to rely on a particularly large array of percussion instruments. As he shows on “Tuesday Ends Saturday,” he can both swing and rock with ease, too.

The next two albums came in the late 70s after Motian left Jarrett’s American ensemble and focused on the bandleader role full time. Dance (1977) and Le Voyage (1979) are strictly trio performances, with saxophonist Charles Brackeen and Ornette Coleman veteran David Izenzon on double-bass for the former and J.F. Jenny-Clark manning the bass for the latter. By this time, all songs were exclusively Motian-penned, and unlike the style excursions of the first two albums, these two stick with loosely defined motifs, group improvisation, plenty of individual highlights (especially on “Abacus”) and Ornette-inspired themes. But overall, these are the least interesting pair of the bunch.

The final two albums, Psalm (1981) and It Should’ve Happened A Long Time Ago (1984) wrap up the first twelve years of Motian’s musical development as a leader, by which time he’s proven to be adaptable to varying small-group configurations. Motian formed a new, expanded ensemble in the early 80s that included Billy Drewes on saxes, Ed Schuller on double bass and two unknowns who went on to become household names in jazz as much as Motian himself: guitarist Bill Frisell and tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano.

Both of these albums are sonically a huge departure from the 70s output, too, not the least of which is due not only to the new and little-understood digital recording techniques of the time but also the introduction of a guitarist who quickly proved to be even more idiosyncratic than the late Sam Brown.

Frisell adds the spacious, lonesome sound that sometimes showed up on earlier records but now it’s front and center. On pieces such as “Psalm” and “Fantasy,” the usual abstractions are given new perspectives from Frisell’s twisted ambiences and the twin sax drones of Lovano and Drewes. But Motian shows a willingness to break out of that formula, as shown on the rock backbeat of “White Magic” going up against a cacophony of saxes. Frisell gives an early indication of his fabled ability to brighten up a melody on the calypso flavored “Mandeville,” wihch pointed the way to where Frisell would soon go on his own records.

The last record reduces the quintet to a trio of Motian, Frisell and Lovano, and it’s this bass-less trio that presented the most possibilities to Motian (he would famously reconvene this trio twenty-one years later with his late-career return to ECM, I Have The Room Above Her). The title song exemplifies a new order in trio music where no bottom exists and the melodic illumination of Frisell is the vehicle for delivering Motian’s uniquely dispersed harmonies, while Lovano firmly holds down the main thematic lines. On “Fiasco,” Frisell tosses chords from his organ-like guitar synth at Motian, who furiously beats them off. Even in an abstract setting, Lovano, meanwhile sounds steadfastly boppish, but he knows how to make that traditional dialect work within this ultra-modern context.

The whole collection of these dozen years of recordings is virtually culminated on an updated rendition of “Conception Vessel.” Much shorter this time, a melancholy mood is wrung from the combination of Frisell and Lovano. Motian seems to be making the case that there is continuity in his concept of music that’s survived time and configurations. And, he’s right. His adventurous soul and deep respect of tradition as he stretched jazz to its limits had always been in his DNA as a leader from the time he went into a studio to make with first record with ECM back in 1972. That’s what he took with him to the grave. Luckily, he left behind some recordings that decades later still intrigue and is still forcing younger generations of artistically ambitious jazz musicians to apply themselves harder to catch up to what he did so long ago.

That’s why the jazz world so mourns the loss.

The Paul Motian box set is set for release April 23, by ECM Records.

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S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on,, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at
S. Victor Aaron
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