In a time when leadership roles are being thrust increasingly upon young musicians who may have the chops, the technique and the theory, but not the experience, drummerPaul Motian could be considered a lesson in patience, in waiting for the right time, in holding off for the precise moment of readiness. It’s not that Motian couldn’t, perhaps, have begun a career leading groups sooner than November, 1972 when, at the age of 41, he entered Butterfly and Sound Ideas Studios in New York City with ECM producer Manfred Eicher. Creating what’s since become a classic recording that, from the get-go, demonstrated an approach to writing and leadership as distinctive as his extant work with a trifecta of significant pianists (Bill Evans, Paul Bley and Keith Jarrett), Conception Vessel (ECM, 1973)…
…was proof positive that the Philadelphia-born drummer of Armenian background was, indeed, capable of music as esoteric as his increasingly textural approach to the kit.
Having lived through the evolution and refraction of jazz from the more straight-ahead swing of the 1940s through bebop and cool to the increasingly liberated ’60s, if the acquisition of a piano from Jarrett was Motian’s catalyst for learning how to notate the music he was hearing inside his head, then it was considerable hang time spent with Eicher in the early ’70s, when the producer traveled with Jarrett’s trio (including, at the time, Motian and bassist Charlie Haden) in Europe, that the concept for Motian’s first album as a leader became a reality.
Motian’s passing, in the fall of 2011, has left a huge gap in the jazz continuum; the drummer continued, throughout his life, to play not just with his contemporaries, but also acted as an important mentor for younger players, not only in more recent groups like his Electric Bebop Band and the nascent trio of Lost in a Dream(ECM, 2010)—whose full potential, cut short as it was, will never be fully realized—but throughout his career, perhaps most importantly in the formation of his thirty-year association with guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonistJoe Lovano, first documented Psalm It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago (ECM, 1982).
Paul Motian, another installment of ECM’s Old & New Masters Edition series of box sets—culling albums from the label’s back catalog, many of them out of print, some of them never before on CD, and others never released on CD in their complete form—brings together Motian’s first six recordings for the label. From Conception Vesselthrough to It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago (ECM, 1985), they represent Motian’s emergence as a leader and writer of substance, before leaving the label for nearly two decades, returning in 2005, once again with Frisell and Lovano, for I Have the Room Above Her, continuing on as if he’d never left. In the interim, while Motian released albums as a leader for labels including Winter & Winter, JMT and Soul Note, he continued to record as a band member on ECM recordings by Paul Bley and Jarrett, as well as with pianists Marilyn Crispelland Carla Bley.
His new millennium return to the label was a welcome one, and if his final years were surprisingly busy, recording regularly for both ECM and Winter & Winter—despite a heart attack slowing his travel down before the other health issues that ultimately led to his passing eight months after his 80th birthday—then Paul Motian provides an opportunity to revisit where it all began, and follow Motian’s progress as a nascent leader in 1972 to a fully formed one by 1985.
Conception Vessel‘s relatively small personnel becomes even more diminutive when tracking the lay of the land. Of its six Motian originals, two feature trios with Haden and guitarist Sam Brown; one is a quartet with Haden, violinist Leroy Jenkins and flautist Becky Friend; one is a solo percussion piece; and two are duet tracks with Jarrett.
As pianist Ethan Iverson identifies in his liner notes to the box, looking at Conception Vessel in the context of its original form as an LP makes more sense: the first side being the two trio tracks with Brown, separated by Motian’s brief solo, “Ch’I Energie.” Those two trio tracks—with Brown using classical guitar on the opening “Georgian Bay” and electric on the considerably longer “Rebica”—reveal, beyond a certain folkloric innocence to some of Motian’s writing, that Brown could well have garnered more significant attention, had this largely overlooked and undervalued player not passed away in 1977 at the age of 38. Along with his playing onConception Vessel and Motian’s follow-up, 1975′s Tribute, Brown’s performance on Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra (Impulse!, 1969), Jarrett’s uncharacteristic Expectations (Columbia, 1972) and vibraphonist Gary Burton‘s Gary Burton & Keith Jarrett (Atlantic, 1971) all reveal a player far more advanced than his session work for people like James Brown and Barry Manilow might suggest.
Here, on “Georgian Bay,” along with Motian’s delicate percussion Brown’s lightly finger-picked arpeggios create, an ethereal context for Haden, who solos with the kind of astute perfection that has characterized his entire career. When Brown solos, it’s in many ways an aesthetic precursor to later ECM albums by Ralph Towner, likeBatik(1978) and Bill Connors‘ Of Mist and Melting from the same year, though here, with Motian, the context is considerably freer, the structures more open. Brown’s playing changes, somewhat, on “Rebica,” though with both tracks being largely rubato, they’re of a kind that gives this first side to Conception Vessel its own vibe, its own sound.
The title track that opens side two of Conception Vessel‘s second side is a rare chance to hear Jarrett in an unadorned duo with a drummer. Compare this version to Motian’s take with Frisell and Lovano on It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago and Jarrett’s particular interpretive strengths are revealed. He has, of course, made a career of doing exactly that with his Standards Trio (for thirty years this year), but never with the kind of temporal freedom afforded here, where Motian’s eschewal of strict time and ears as perceptive as his partner’s makes this a high point in his career that’s all the more remarkable for being so early/, at least in relative terms.
The second duo track with Jarrett is a bit more of a curiosity, with Jarrett playing flute on “American Indian: Song of Sitting Bull”—further indication of Motian’s love of folkloric simplicity. Jarrett also played flute on his duo recording with DeJohnette, Ruta And Daitya (ECM, 1973), recorded the same year as Conception Vessel, and would continue to occasionally use it with his renowned American Quartet, culminating in another recording that stands out in his discography—the home-recorded, multi-tracked solo album Spirits (ECM, 1985). Still, this may be his first recording on which he played flute, and he’s a rawer, far less schooled player than Becky Friend, whose flute work alongside Leroy Jenkins on the nearly 10-minute closer. “Inspiration from a Vietnamese Lullaby,” begs the question: where did she go after this and why have we not heard more from her?”
What Paul Motian also reveals about the drummer’s first six recordings as a leader for the label, is that they can be easily grouped into three doubles. Unlike Conception Vessel, Tribute(1975) has a consistent set of personnel across its five tracks—three Motian originals complemented by two tracks that first made their first appearance on Liberation Music Orchestra: Haden’s “Song for Ché,” which subsequently became something of a standard, interpreted by everyone from guitarist Marc Ribot to singerRobert Wyatt; and Ornette Coleman‘s “War Orphans,” a song that Haden had played with the saxophonist in ’67 and which would appear on future ECM recordings, including pianist Bobo Stenson‘s 1998 album of the same name, and Stenson Trio bassist Anders Jormin‘s beautiful but overlooked solo album, Xieyi (2001).
Tribute is more intrinsically focused than Conception Vessel, sharing three of its personnel in Haden and Brown, fleshed out to a quartet with a second guitarist, Paul Metzke and, on two tracks, a quintet with saxophonistCarlos Ward. Metzke may not be household name, but his subsequent résumé makes clear that he’s well-known amongst musicians, ranging from composer/arranger Gil Evansand saxophonist Gato Barbieri to drummers Joe Chambers and Al Foster. While Brown’s roots in jazz-rock are undeniable, Metzke is the more overtly pyrotechnic player on pieces like the 10-minute “Sod House.” But its Brown’s more understated, more textural approach that would ultimately inform Bill Frisell—quoted by Iverson in the liners as saying “I always forget to mention Sam Brown as an influence. I was really affected by him. Brown followed Jerry Hahn in the Gary Burton band, using a Telecaster with an overdriven, reverb-drenched sound.” Clearly a touchstone for the emerging Frisell.
Still, as much as it has ties to Conception Vessel and uses rubato as the foundation for three tunes, two ofTribute‘s compositions find Motian playing more clear and direct time than anything on the previous record. “Tuesday Ends Saturday” is a particular standout, with Haden and Motian driving forward while Brown and Metzke layer a floating melody over top, its expansive Americana vibe a possible early inspiration for another young guitarist, Pat Metheny, when he went into the studio to record with, amongst others, Charlie Haden, to record his seminal 80/81 (ECM, 1980). If Metzke is a more assertive player than Brown, he’s also an equally listening one, the two guitarist’s interlocking empathically while managing to avoid stepping on each other’s toes, even as Brown demonstrates a clearer attention to tone, texture, and, in his solos, motivic development. Metzke’s gymnastics are clearly informed, on the other hand, by early period John McLaughlin, circaExtrapolation (Polydor, 1969), with the same kind of clear articulation, even at brighter tempos/
Ward—by this time on the call list of pianist Dollar Brand (aka Abdullah Ibrahim), trumpeter/multi-instrumentalistDon Cherry and pianist/vibraphonist Karl Berger—only appears on two tracks, the episodic “Sod House” and album-opening “Victoria”—which, with Brown’s delicate, finger-picked arpeggios, is a clear successor toConception Vessel‘s “Georgian Bay” but with a broader, more expansive aural landscape. Despite the often liberated contexts in which he appears, on this record Ward tends to ground the music rather than elevate it.
Once again recorded in New York, Tribute may be more evolutionary than the revolutionary Conception Vessel, but benefits from significantly better sound, a quality that further enhances the next two records, with Eicher relocating the sessions to Tonstudio Bauer in Ludwigsburg—a recording studio that, with Martin Wieland at the board, had by then become a regular home for ECM along with Talent and then Rainbow Studio in Oslo, Norway. Shifting away from chordal contexts, both Dance (1978) and Le Voyage (1979) are trio recordings with saxophonist Charles Brackeen and, on bass, David Izenzon and J.F. Jenny-Clark respectively. Without any harmonic foundations each trio is free to explore the music from both horizontal and vertical perspectives.
Returning, in both cases, to all-Motian repertoires, Brackeen is a perfect foil to the increasingly melodic drummer—a stunning technician, to be sure, but one for whom color, candid evocation, deeper interconnectivity and allegiance to the heart of any composition were of far greater importance. Nowhere do these concepts coalesce better than on Dance‘s title track. Motian opens a cappella, playing the melody on his kit in a way that has clearly influenced subsequent generations of melodic drummers like Bill Stewart and Ari Hoenig. By the time Brackeen enters on soprano, the melody is already familiar, making the saxophonist’s performance a reiteration rather than a first-time revelation. It may be based on a relatively brief, relatively straightforward melodic conceit, but “Dance” demonstrates just how much can be done with simple but clear ideation. A military style snare drum and Izenzon’s sparely bowed bass line support Brackeen’s soprano-driven theme on the following “Kalypso,” the pulse opening up further with the introduction of additional overdubbed snare which then allows Motian to introduce cymbals and hand percussion as Izenzon bows out and Brackeen begins to further expound on the composition’s sketch-like roadmap.
Another musician who passed on far too early, Izenzon was a bassist with plenty of promise, already well-established as a member of Ornette Coleman’s mid-’60s trio on Blue Note but also playing with saxophonistArchie Shepp and, most curiously, singer Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band, recording with the wife of The Beatles‘John Lennonin the early ’70s before taking a break to care for his son, who had become ill around that time. After acquiring his PhD in psychology and starting Potsmokers Anonymous, Dance represented Izenson’s return to active playing that was cut short when he died in 1979 at the age of 47. Motian called upon Jenny-Clarke—a bassist already familiar to ECM fans of trumpeters Enrico Rava and Kenny Wheeler, appearing on the Italian’sEnrico Rava Quartet the year before—to replace Izenzon on Le Voyage, released the same year as the expat Canadian, British-resident’s Around 6 in 1979.
Combining the spare, profound melodism of “Folk Song for Rosie” with more extreme passages of visceral power on “Abacus” before Jenny-Clarke joins in with Motian for a little time-based extrapolation, Le Voyage is the first Motian album to have songs so memorable and engaging tthat the drummer would continue to revisit them, time and again: “Song for Rosie” would later show up on Misterioso (Soul Note, 1986) and At the Village Vanguard(Winter & Winter, 1995); in addition to also revisiting “Abascus” on the same two recordings, it would also appear on the drummer’s 1992 duo record with Paul Bley, Flux & Change (Soul Note) and again, fifteen years later, on Lost in a Dream; the solo “Drum Music” would appear on Jack of Clubs (Soul Note, 1984) and Lost in a Dream; and “Sunflower” would reappear, sixteen years later, on At the Village Vanguard.
All this suggests that Motian’s acumen as a writer was really beginning to solidify by this time. The next step was to establish greater permanency in lineups, and the final two albums in this box accomplish just that. Psalmmay be a quintet record and It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago a trio set, but both feature the core group of Motian, Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell, a relationship that began in 1981 when they entered Tonstudio Bauer to record Psalm with saxophonist Billy Drewes and bassist Ed Schuller. It was a quintet that would continue for five more years and three more Soul Note records—1983′s The Story of Maryam, 1984′s Jack of Clubs and 1986′sMisterioso, with Jim Pepper replacing Drewes on all three—but ultimately the quintet proved not to possess the same longevity as the trio, which would be a part of Motian’s life right through to his death.
At this time, Frisell was still an emerging talent, though he’d already proven himself, albeit somewhat tentatively, as a guitarist to keep an eye on with bassist Eberhard Weber‘s Fluid Rustle(ECM, 1979). That session led to work with bassist Arild Andersen and the stellar live recording, Molde Concert(ECM, 1982), as well as a two-year tenure in saxophonist Jan Garbarek‘s group for Paths, Prints (ECM, 1982) and Wayfarer (ECM, 1983), as well as a return appearance with Weber on Later That Evening (ECM, 1982). If Frisell appeared to be ECM’s de facto house guitarist at the time, it was because he’d grown in leaps and bounds over this relatively short period, a singularly distinctive, idiosyncratic guitarist whose harmonic approach and ability to create previously unheard sonic landscapes was, at that time, truly unparalleled.
The muscular but acutely aware Lovano, on the other hand, may have been new to ECM with Psalm. but had cut his teeth in big bands of Woody Herman and Mel Lewis before being recruited by Motian for an album that stands out in the drummer’s ECM discography as one that actually almost rocks. If Motian’s approach remains as loose, unfettered and textural as ever, he can be heard, for the first time since hooking up with Eicher and ECM, actually playing a backbeat on Psalm‘s “White Magic.” The ever-inventive Lovano and Drewes somehow manage to orbit around and unite with one another in magical synchronicity, while Schuller anchors the tune and Frisell turns in a performance that explains why, suddenly, everyone seemed to want to work with him. Strangely constructed, cascading overdriven lines contrast with swelling, long-sustaining and strangely skewed chords, his early use a 16-second delay device contributing to a sound that can only be described as cinematic, without ever being overblown or excessively dominant.
Frisell’s expansive landscape also provides the foundation for Psalm‘s opening title track, a slowly unfolding piece of brooding lyricism. If this were to be someone’s first exposure to the guitarist, the only rational response might have been “what the…?” Schuller’s robust arco, Motian’s gentle colors and the interaction of Lovano, Drewes and Frisell (who simultaneously maintains that head-scratching foundation) makes for a transcendent, seven perfectly titled minutes.
Motian’s love of “changes, no time” and “time, no changes” are still to be found, but with a larger group and broader textural and rhythmic palette, Psalm is the record where Motian’s group concept and writing finally catch up with each other. He even turns to real song form, with the light Latin rhythm of “Mandeville” blending curiously with its countrified I-IV-V changes. Frisell carries both the changes and the melody, as Lovano and Drewes move in, out and around them, leading to a solo from Schuller that proves the bassist an equally fine melodist. “Etude” is a Frisell solo, but one predicated on a Motian melody, leading to the closing “Yahllah” that, despite the ultimate participation of the entire quintet, is the true precursor to the drummer’s decision to trim the quintet down to a trio.
While it’s no longer unusual to hear a group without a bassist—especially a group with a drummer—at the time of It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago it was less common and, in Motian’s egalitarian approach, downright revolutionary. Allowing for an overall more ethereal landscape, Motian’s trio—even at this early stage—builds a language that relies on every member’s strength and imagination to, if not exactly fill in the blanks (there are plenty of spaces left most intentionally open) then, at least, to create collective orchestral cinematics within the context of such a diminutive lineup.
Here, as Frisell would for a few other recordings including his work on bassistMarc Johnson‘s Bass Desires (ECM, 1986) and his own Rambler (ECM, 1985) (the guitarist’s second recording as a leader for ECM (or anyone), after 1983′s In Line), the guitarist also employed guitar synthesizer to expand his palette even further. It certainly affords him no shortage of timbral freedom on tracks like the relatively incendiary “Fiasco,” which alternates between Motian dueting with Frisell and Motian in tandem with Lovano. Despite the synth’s ability to harmonize and create very un-guitar-like sounds, Frisell—much like fellow guitaristJohn Abercrombie—would ultimately desert the instrument, at most and as an alternative, working with a larger array of guitar processors that gave him many of the same possibilities. Elsewhere, during certain periods in his career, Frisell has used absolutely no processing whatsoever, which didn’t matter because Frisell could pick up a ukulele (as he has) and it would be instantly recognizable.
The same can be said of Lovano and Motian; what this trio seems to have afforded everyone is an opportunity, like no other, to explore the entire jazz canon—sometimes alone, sometimes augmented. Subsequent to It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago, Motian began releasing his music other labels, in particular using this trio as the core for tributes to pianists Thelonious Monk (1988′s Monk in Motian, with guest pianist Geri Allen and saxophonist Dewey Redman) and Bill Evans (1990′s Bill Evans, with former Evans bassist Marc Johnson), in addition to releasing three On Broadway volumes on JMT, released in 1988, 1989 and 1993, added Charlie Haden and, on Volume 3, saxophonist Lee Konitz, and tackling 32 jazz standards and Brill Building hits in the drummer and his trio’s most inimitable fashion.
But it all began here, on ECM, with Psalm and It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago—and on an even broader scale, with every record included in Paul Motian, a marvelous six-disc collection that, for those with some of the titles, will fill in the blanks, and for those new to Motian’s early work as a leader (or Motian, period), a most revealing four hours of music where someone who’d already established himself as one of jazz’s most important drummers, took the giant leap to become one of jazz’s most significant, innovative and forward-reaching composers and bandleaders. When Motian died in 2011 he was still regularly stretching the boundaries; whether familiar with Motian or not, the early journey of Paul Motian is one well worth taking—time and time again.
Personnel: Paul Motian: percussion (CD1-4, CD6), drums (CD3-6); Keith Jarrett: piano (CD1#4), flute (CD1#5); Sam Brown: guitar (CD1#1, CD1#3), acoustic guitar (CD2), electric guitar (CD2); Leroy Jenkins: violin (CD1#5); Becky Friend: flute (CD1#5); Charlie Haden: double bass (CD1#1, CD1#3, CD1#5, CD2); Carlos Ward: alto saxophone (CD2); Paul Metzke: guitar (CD2); Charles Brackeen: soprano and tenor saxophones (CD3-4); David Izenzon: double bass (CD3); J.F> Jenny-Clark: double bass (CD4); Joe Lovano: tenor saxophone (CD5-6); Billy Drewes: alto saxophone (CD5); Bill Frisell: guitar (CD5-6), guitar synthesizer (CD6); Ed Schuller: bass (CD5).