honoring Paul Motian


10 years after I conceived the String Choir Project, a year after the cd was released, I  finally toured these arrangements of Paul Motian’s singular music for 11 days in Europe this Fall. It was on our 4th gig, in Malmo, Sweden, that we performed the music in the way I had always dreamed possible. We achieved an alchemical mixture of spontaneity, fine intonation, ensemble attunement, intimacy, playfulness, and gravitas in a perfect acoustic environment. Sorry to be sentimental, but I almost wept. It was a long time coming.

Then, not more than a couple days later, news filtered through that Paul was gravely ill. Those who informed me asked that the news be kept quiet.  I shared a few words with guitarist Jakob Bro, who had heard as well, not knowing specifics about Paul’s condition. That evening when we began the first delicate, magisterial notes to “It Should Have Happened A Long Time Ago” I felt each note of the bittersweet melody with new poignancy.

Now Paul is gone. I am grateful that I could make the record and perform the music while he was alive. I tire of posthumous tributes. Must we just honor the dead? With sincere humility I am proud to have engaged with Paul’s music in such an alive way.

I met Paul when I organized a reunion of his quintet (Joe Lovano, Bill Frisell, Ed Schuller, Billy Drewes) for a festival in California in 2000. At that time I told him about the vision I had of arrangements of his tunes for string quartet and two guitars. He seemed intrigued, if slightly wary. He agreed to listen to some of my first attempts at this idea, and we sat in my car at dusk, listening to a midi version of Conception Vessel I’d done. I had recently seen the Emerson String Quartet play the Shostakovich quartets, a rather shattering experience. I shyly explained how this had played into my ideas. I also played him a somewhat twisted arrangement of Straight No Chaser I’d done. He laughed as he heard it and said he thought Monk would have really enjoyed it.

I felt I’d received some sort of small benediction…

In the next few years, fitfully, with much distance between, I’d ask him to fax me his charts, and I began to organize my thoughts. I have to say that a fax from Paul always made my day! It was great to see his notation, because the recordings were sometimes ephemeral, it was informative to see what the notes said. My first arrangements were not quite right- maybe a bit belabored. It took a while to find the balance between writing and improvisation. I wanted to approach the music on my own terms and maintain the unmistakable, one-of-a-kind feel of Paul Motian in my writing. Not a simple matter- no, not at all.

One of the main issues I faced was this: I wanted the time to feel liquid, as it does when Paul plays. I kept asking the string quartet to flow in and out of meter and tempo, as if a single instrument.  It was virtually impossible without much, much practice. And, of course, with performances a rarity, this was not possible. In one of many phone conversations with Paul about the project I mentioned this issue to him. “Paul,” I said, I’m trying to get the group to play out of time but still have focus and direction.”

“Ha, ha” he laughed sharply. “Not easy is it!”

Paul invented a new style on drums. I can’t tell you how often I have played with a great drummer and hoped, without saying so, that I could feel that “Paul Motian thing” on an out of tempo tune. It turns out what he does is something only he can do! I finally realized what needed to be done in the String Choir. I had to attempt to compose this feeling into the music. Once it was locked into the chart, we would be free to play with it, and add whatever spontaneity was appropriate. Meanwhile, though, I put a ton of thought into capturing an elusive feeling through notation. There were multiple rewrites, and some sketchy moments at gigs as we worked towards unity. If you look at my charts you see a lot of odd times, a lot of unusual phrase lengths, things I never would have come up with if I hadn’t been attempting to capture Paul’s sound.

I kept searching for the right tunes, abandoning one as I picked at another. What I found is that there was no composer like Paul. His writing might have gorgeous chord changes and a piercing melody, and yet it did not sound like anyone else’s jazz tune. Some of his most beautiful melodies, like Cathedral Song or From Time to Time, seem steeped in some sort of timeless mystery. They almost feel connected to, say, liturgical music from the Russian Orthodox Church, or Eastern European folk song. They feel ceremonial. Some of the melodies feel holy to me. Meanwhile other tunes are pugnacious, vivacious and full of bewitching intensity, tunes like Drum Music and Split Decision. To play this music you need a pretty deep bag of tricks. Paul had an amazing sense of melody, on and off the drums; but his harmony was remarkable also. The chord changes to his tunes are entirely unorthodox, sometimes lovely, sometimes perplexing, always galvanizing.

I sent tapes of live gigs to Paul to solicit his feedback. It was really great to hear him urge me on. Of course there were also things he didn’t care for as much. At some point he actually spoke to not one but THREE of the best European jazz  labels exhorting them to put a cd out. It turns out that not even Paul Motian’s blessing is enough for a record deal! Ah, the record business. At least I got to hear Paul say, more than once, “I can’t believe it, man! I don’t know what’s wrong with those guys!”

Anyway, thank goodness Francois from Sunnyside seemed to “get” the idea and he has done fine with the record.

This Fall’s tour deepened my appreciation of the music. Chris Howes, Sam Bardfeld, Mat Maneri, Hank Roberts, and Jakob Bro and I achieved wonderful moments of quiet intimacy, connected by the powerful melodies. It made so much sense NOT to have drums while playing this music. The Europeans responded wonderfully. We opened up to some interesting, intense places.

I did not know Paul well at all. Certainly he was a complex and sometimes impenetrable person. But there were great conversations we had, times when he would seem to just flow from one story to another, and I’d get the back story on one of the tunes, or pick up a random anecdote from his enormously colorful past. One could see light and darkness in him, a child-like vivacity, and an occluded mystery, just like the music. In a world where there is so little guidance from elders, so little chance to live inside jazz history, these conversations were invigorating.

I can’t tell you how many times I saw the trio with Bill and Joe at the Vanguard. I was a real groupie. It is the only jazz group I ever had this relationship with- it was like being a Deadhead or something! How many mammoth versions of Misterioso did I see? How many set-ending variations of Drum Music? No doubt, each was remarkably different. I go back to this: in a world where there seems to always be too much information, Paul’s groups excelled at providing just a little information, where economy, silence, and eloquence always invited the listener towards a reflective, open space. Paul’s elliptical approach was a like a continuous question mark hovering over the band stand. The reason I called my group the String Choir is that I always heard a choir-like sound in Paul’s groups, an ensemble feeling where each voice was equal, and the sum hovered in the room with a unity of purpose rarely found in jazz, or any music.

In my role as groupie at the Vanguard I tried not to be too pesky…but I probably  was. One time I was backstage and an adoring European fan began to describe, quite emotionally, how much Paul’s music meant to him. Paul stood there stonefaced, looking at the ground. When the man was done he stared straight at him with a wicked smile and said. “Yeah! I’m not fucking around!”


Joel Harrison


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