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Paul Motian: There's a Million Songs Out There

By Published: November 22, 2011
AAJ: Let's get into some of your pieces. You've become such a composer that it's kind of amazing that you spent years as a non-writing drummer. Do you ever write songs with this band in mind?

PM: No.

AAJ: You just write pieces and then adapt them to various bands?

PM: Right. I don't consider myself a learned composer. I have a piano and I'll sit down at the piano and fool around until something happens—some idea or phrase, a bunch of notes or a scale. Some chord changes, whatever. Some small thing will happen that I'll build on and eventually, it'll turn into a song or a piece of music that I'm satisfied with. Then I'll play it with the band and work it out that way. It's like with the trio—with [Bill] Frisell and [Joe] Lovano. Lovano used to have a loft downtown and we used to rehearse there and I would come in with some ideas. When I thought what I had was more or less finished, I would take it down to those guys and we'd play it and if it needed corrections, we'd make them. If not, we'd just play it. That's the way I work. I was just at the piano now and I came up with some fragment of an idea and I'm working on that. Sometimes something comes really fast and quick and other times, I may mess around with something for a long time—months and months. I'll keep changing it. Then what usually happens is that the first, original thing turns out to be the best.

AAJ: Your song "Etude has a beautiful two-horn unison melody—sort of Middle Eastern and very Paul Motian. This has a very rubato feel but it still starts out feeling slow—there's a feeling of stretched-out eternity to it. The horns are pretty much static, so the action's in the cymbals, snare, guitars and bass—lots of scrambling wildlife down in the grass. Then as it shifts into some horn counterpoint it speeds up—again, without a stated pulse. Tell me about this one.

PM: Well, after the way you just talked about it, I think I better listen to it again! That's an old tune. I did that years ago—it's on an ECM record. It's a guitar solo that Frisell plays, and it's just him. But somehow, when we were doing this last Garden of Eden record, I just wanted to try it with the band, just to see what would happen. The result's what's on the record. I think the original is on a quintet record called Psalm [ECM, 1982]. I also did that one with [pianist] Geri Allen and [bassist] Charlie Haden [Charlie Haden/Paul Motian featuring Geri Allen, Etudes (Soul Note, 1987)].

AAJ: That song's got some legs.

PM: [Laughing] Yeah. Actually, a lot of songs I've been doing—well, not a lot, but some—I've done before for different record labels. Sometimes they come up again. I wouldn't do that, but I see that Monk did it a lot, so I figure—if he can do it, so can I.

AAJ: Well, no one did that more than him.

PM: Yeah. And you know, if it works out—if I'm satisfied with it, if it feels right—I'll do it.

AAJ: My current favorite on Garden of Eden is "Mumbo Jumbo, which feels like a sort of cousin to "Manhattan Melodrama. I love its repeated melody, which is stated by the two horns plus Jakob, I think. It's really beautiful and dramatic.

PM: That one's also been done a lot. I've done that with Lovano and Frisell as a trio [on Motian In Tokyo (JMT, 1991) and Sound of Love (Winter & Winter, 1998] and, I think, with some other groups.

AAJ: How's something like this start out in your mind? Just a melody or what?

PM: Yeah. Well, maybe. I can't remember exactly how that song started off, but probably the same way I write all the other stuff. It's been a while since I wrote that.

AAJ: "Mesmer is a sort of canon or round—you could call it "play along with Chris since he plays that melody on alto and the other musicians join in with him at various times, whether it's Malaby or Cardenas or Bro—meanwhile the bass and your drums are doing your stuff separately and that's where the changes and shifts take place before you and Jerome and everyone else sort of come together by the end. It also really cooks.

PM: That piece is new. I like the melody so much. You talk about arrangements—but I really didn't arrange it. I just told the band, "Just keep repeating the melody. Just play that melody, play it over and over, and if I get sick of it, I'll just stop. And then [laughing] everybody'll stop!

AAJ: Well, you're the leader.

PM: Yeah! So that's what we've been doing. We were playing it at the Vanguard, and it came out a little bit different than it came out on the record. I like the way it came out on the record. One time we were playing it at the Vanguard and we kind of got away from the melody, so after the set, I told the guys that someone should always play the melody. The melody should keep going on. So if someone else in the band might want to take it out somewhere, to go somewhere else, it's okay—but the melody should always be there. Someone said that one reminded them of Ornette Coleman's music. I don't think so, but maybe it's true.

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