Paul Motian memorial at the Vanguard

I was honored to attend the Paul Motian memorial, which was organized by ECM records at the Village Vanguard on a cold Sunday afternoon in January. The first thing I noticed as I emerged into this holy room was a huge, vibrant picture of Paul that sat in front of the bandstand. From the first moment he dominated the proceedings, with his spirit, and with his absence.

Arrivals came in two’s and threes. Many musicians who played with him over the years were present: Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell, of course, and Judi Silvano, Steve Cardenas, Ben Monder, Brad Shepik, Frank Kimbrough, Lee Konitz, Ed Schuller, Billy Drewes, Tony Malaby, Chris Cheek, Anat Fort, Jacob Sacks. Bill, who was scheduled to play, said he was nervous to perform for the assemblage- shouldn’t everyone get to play?  He would be standing literally and figuratively behind a huge picture of Paul.

Who better than he to take on this job?

There was much laughing and hugging, like a reunion of sorts. No one seemed quite comfortable, but they were not quite uncomfortable either. Lorraine had set up a table of food in the back and drinks were on the house. Soon the lights dimmed, and  Masabumi Kikuchi walked to the piano and played four short pieces alone. The music was a tangle of rubato gestures with no discernible center. Stark, reflective phrases and clusters, often dissonant, then moving towards suggestions of lovely tonality, pained, elegiac, set off by his wheezing, groaning vocalizations.

The lights came on, and the room started to fill with more people and conversation. A few of Paul’s relatives were there, Paul Bley’s daughters too, folks from ECM. Both Paul Bley and Charlie Haden were said to have wished they could come, but were sick. I sat with my wife and drummer/ Motian fan Chuck Braman, as Bill and Joe walked to the stage. Lee Konitz sat down next to us. I introduced us all, calling Chuck “Paul’s biggest fan.”

Lee said, “We are ALL that.”

Then Lee leaned over to Joey Baron, who sat a table over and said. “Why don’t you go up there and play?”

Joey, smiling, said, “No one asked me to.”

Lee said, “I’m asking you to!” Joey laughed.

As soon as Joe and Bill began the purpose of our gathering became more real. Solemn, without fanfare, they opened with Drum Music. There was a great silence from the drums. Bill had almost no effects, no reverb. They continued with Dance, Jack of Clubs, Conception Vessel, a kind of greatest hits. Both Joe and Bill played with intimacy and soul. The music became more intense, completely focused on the melodies. They both began to smile- one sensed that as the set went on the weight of memorializing their friend and mentor got lighter.

Bill began to play Etude, one of my favorite melodies, alone. With understatement and delicacy he played through the whole melody, mesmerizing, slow. Then he stepped on his looping pedal, sustaining a phrase, his sound now hovering gently above and around the stage. The image that came to mind was of fireflies at dusk. Joe came in with the melody to It Should Have Happened a Long Time Ago, and the haunting, gorgeous lament penetrated the room. Joe’s tone was huge and warm, and Bill set up a series of ghostly minor backdrops, gentle cascades of sound against the keening tenor. Several people remarked later that they began to cry during this piece.

It ended with an amazing loop Bill had created, ringing peals of sound, the kind of tintinnabulation one hears in Aarvo Part’s music.  They played one last, blasting chorus of Drum Music, Paul’s signature set closer,  and then, too soon for me, it was over. Joe spoke a few words in a halting voice soaked with emotion. “I want to thank you all for coming and being part of this, thanks to the Vanguard, and to the families- we’re all a part of the family. Paul loved everyone.” He pointed to Paul’s picture, made a deep bow, and Bill and he hugged for a few moments, which was beautiful to witness, and they left the stage.

Some drinking began. More conversation…Tony Malaby showed i-phone videos of his 4 yr. old playing some pretty amazing rock guitar. Jerome Harris, Thomas Morgan, Jerome Sabbagh, and Bill McHenry were there. I stood with Joe for a while, and listened to a series of vignettes about Paul that seemed to emit from Joe with loving urgency. He described the sound of Paul’s drums from 1956, how he tuned like Max Roach, and then the tuning changed as Paul began to find his own sound. He talked about watching a backstage meeting between Philly Joe Jones and Paul, how Paul had described a night when he and Max and Mingus had gathered at the Café Bohemian to see Miles’ band in ’56.

Paul had a rolodex of phone numbers he’d shown Joe, that he had never thrown away. There was Eric Dolphy’s number, Duke’s in Harlem, Coltrane’s Long Island home, Paul Chambers, Scott Lafaro, and so on. Then onto how Sonny Rollins had called to express his condolences after Paul passed, and how years back Sonny had expressed interest in playing with Paul, and Joe tried to make it happen, and had taken Paul to one of Sonny’s shows at B.B. King’s, but nothing transpired. Paul had a story about going to see Sonny at the Vanguard, how Sonny always took refuge in a closet in back of the stage, instead of moving through the crowd to the customary musician’s room. Paul sought him out in the closet, and there was Sonny seated on the floor next to Mel Lewis’ drum kit, surrounded by candles, his face and beard lit up in a dark halo…

A first tour with Paul and Dewey and Henri Texier, and then the story of how Paul had asked him to join his group in 1980. Joe had been playing with the Mel Lewis band and someone mentioned Paul was holding sessions, seeking out new players, and Joe went over, and that was that for the next thirty years. (I remember Paul telling me Joe just “blew everyone else away.”) I heard a chronology of the quartet into quintet (Mark Johnson gave way to Ed Schuller, Billy Drewes to Jim Pepper) and then just the trio, and Joe pointedly described how Paul always elevated any band he was in, absorbing the vibe, listening intently, pushing people towards their highest potential, always interested in younger musicians and what they brought to his sound. Several times Joe said emphatically, “Paul lived to play and played to live.”

This impassioned history was the core of the event to me. What I pictured were concentric circles. It began with those of us there, and a bigger circle contained Paul’s life and all of the amazing people he knew and had played with, a sixty year career that connected to many of the greatest musicians of the 20th century. Someday soon there will be none left amongst us who saw these legends in the flesh. That circle is part of an even bigger one, the circle that is American music, a circle which contains much of what is great and lasting about our country. No matter what antics are played out on the political stage, whether by war, venality, or sheer stupidity, no matter how great our social unrest, no matter what shenanigans are foisted upon us by Wall Street, we are part of something bigger, deeper, and one hopes more lasting. Our art, as exemplified by Charlie Parker, Miles, Duke, Mingus, Max, Paul, Sonny, Joe, Bill, and so many others, the younger folks, some of which filled the Vanguard that afternoon, represents the best that this land has to offer. It’s soul is this huge circle, amongst us, even when it appears to have receded and become invisible, and it radiates  power and light that we keep following into the darkness, its essence the very reason we were born.

Here are links to  a great memorial broadcast from  Netherlands radio from one of Paul’s biggest fans, Henning Bolte from the Netherlands



Joel Harrison


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