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Paul Motian: There's a Million Songs Out There

By Published: November 22, 2011
AAJ: The other new player is Jerome Harris.

PM: Well, he played with me a lot. He just didn't do the recordings and he didn't do the European tours. He's been playing with me for a long time.

AAJ: His bass sound really blends well on the record with all the guitars and with your own playing. I suppose he has to carry quite a bit of the rhythmic responsibilities so you can play the way you do here.

PM: Also, he's a guitarist. He played a lot with Sonny Rollins. He's very good. He's playing an electric bass, but it kind of looks like an overblown guitar. I don't know what that's called.

AAJ: I really like the structure of this album, which—with the exception of a couple tunes by Cheek and Cardenas that blend right in with your stuff, and the tune "Bill by Jerome Kern—is a set of your compositions book-ended by remarkable, fresh renditions of Mingus, Monk and Bird. Any philosophy behind the presentation or sequencing here?

PM: No, that's [laughing] just the way it came out. I may sound stupid, but I don't think too much about that stuff. I just go into a studio and play the pieces that I like and hope that it comes out okay! I messed around with that sequencing for a long time before it ended up the way it did. And even when it ended up that way, I wasn't really sure if it was the right thing to do. But a lot of people have commented on it being like my music in the middle, book-ended with the Mingus, Monk and Charlie Parker things. So I guess it turned out okay.

AAJ: Let's talk about individual tunes on the record. You do two Charles Mingus tunes to start things off, and while lots of people have recorded "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, "Pithecanthropus Erectus isn't that often covered. Your version's pretty faithful to Mingus' piece except it's maybe more tightly controlled—the water's simmering here but it doesn't quite boil over.

PM: Well, I changed it around a little bit. I think the original is more extended; there's a few more things going on.

AAJ: It's also a great demonstration of what this band does—all the voices, Chris and Tony plus the three guitars that manage to poke out and not get in each other's way. I like how all the voices come in, go out, overlap, interrupt each other—with everything kept together by the descending unison line.

PM: When we played those songs in the Vanguard, [Mingus' wife] Sue Mingus was there one night. She came back into the dressing room, which in the Vanguard is the kitchen, and came up to me and told me how much she loved the way we played the Mingus music. That made me feel really good—she really liked it.

AAJ: Yeah, and she's not afraid to say what she thinks. If she didn't like it, she would have told you.

PM: She loved it, man. She came up to me and gave me a Mingus CD—I guess a recent Mingus Big Band recording. She thought we did it a little bit different and that it was great. So it made me feel good. I thought, "I'm on the right track here.

AAJ: People talk about your abstract, painterly drumming—but you swing pretty hard on this one.

PM: Well, someone else said that recently, and it made me wonder about it. You know, I played 4/4 for about a million years, man [laughing]. I mean, I played with Oscar Pettiford, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Herbie Nichols, Thelonious Monk. I wasn't playing abstract bullshit! I was playing straight-ahead time! And I can do that great. So what happened to my playing—I guess it's an evolution. After I played with Bill Evans and then started playing with Paul Bley and Albert Ayler and different people, I just started opening up the way I played and it just sort of became what it's become.

AAJ: There's a great sort of three-way guitar solo towards the end of "Pithecanthropus which the horns join in on—sort of a controlled polyphony. This is as good a place as any to ask how the arrangements get done for a piece like this—how do you work these out?

PM: Well, I talk about it. First, after I decide on what tune to do—because sometimes I'll pick out some music that just won't work and then abandon it—I try to arrange it so, like you said, people aren't going to get in each other's way. I try to work out arrangements that are a little bit different, so sometimes there's duets between one guitar and one saxophonist, or duets between the other guitar and the other saxophonist. Sometimes they exchange fours, or eights—I want to try to make it interesting. I want to make it interesting for me, and hopefully that might come across to the general public. I don't rehearse the band; I don't think I've ever had any rehearsals. The only rehearsals we do are, when we play a gig, I ask people to come in a couple of hours early and we go over the music and some of the things we're going to do. If there's some new stuff, we'll talk about arrangements. Sometimes people in the band will come up with ideas. And that's how it goes.

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