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Paul Motian: There's a Million Songs Out There

By Published: November 22, 2011
AAJ: How has the group changed over the course of its existence?

PM: It has changed. I'll listen to earlier recordings of that trio, and the sound is different now. Especially with Frisell—in the beginning Frisell was playing with a lot of electronics, a lot of sounds. He's not doing so much of that now. The dynamics have gotten better. Sometimes we'll play some stuff where we play really, really soft—the dynamic range is really wider now than it was in the beginning. Even Lovano's sound has changed, if you listen to some of the records we did early on. Twenty years is a long time! Things change. Joe has gone through different saxophones, he's changed reeds, he's changed mouthpieces. When Bill started playing with me, he had one guitar. He must have fifty now! So things change. But if it starts going downhill, I'll throw it in the garbage. But it's not going that way.

AAJ: You wrote another bunch of tunes for I Have the Room Above Her. I've listened to this record quite a few times since it came out, and one of the best things about it to me is that I love it without really being able to claim I understand it—songs like "Sketches and "Shadows are great, but they're like paintings where if I push my nose right up to them, I just see details that don't make sense to me. But when I step back, it's a beautiful picture.

PM: Well, uhhhh. That sounds great. I don't know what to say about that, but someone said to me one time that some of my music reminded them of paintings. People say a lot of things, man. I don't know what's true. Some people say it's like poetry, some say it's like paintings. I don't know. I don't plan stuff out. I'm not a thinker. Sometimes I'll just say stuff off the top of my head, and regret it later on. I always think about Thelonious Monk—if you talked to him, you had to wait a long time before he answered you, because he thought about what he was saying! He didn't blurt shit out like I do. It's the same thing with the music. Like I said, I'm sitting at the piano, trying things out, and what comes out is what you're hearing. If I like it, it's okay.

AAJ: Well, writers like comparison. So people will say to you that your music is like a painting or a sunset. But it's really like music.

PM: Well, thank you [laughing].

AAJ: "Osmosis appears on the album twice, sort of like a front and side view of something—in each Bill plays that descending melody and Joe blows across it— your drums are faster on "part I than on "part III but the tempo of the song isn't.

PM: We did a "part II, but we didn't use it. It seemed like every time we played that one, it was a little bit different. That's why we used it twice. I guess the third version wasn't that different, so we didn't use it. So that's what happened for that one. You know, for that record, there were no rehearsals. We walked into the studio and I walked in with that music and Bill and Joe had never seen any of it before. And we did that whole record in one afternoon. So that's pretty amazing. Also, the new Motian Band record—I guess we had played some of that before, but there were no rehearsals there either. We went in, I showed the music to the guys and we talked about it and arranged it right there. I tell people that I don't like to rehearse; for recording, it seems like if you have to do take two, it's almost not real anymore—it's almost like a substitute or something. Well, that's not all true—I remember rehearsing with Keith Jarrett. We used to rehearse. He had a lot of music, he wrote a lot of music. So we rehearsed. The first time I met Keith, when he called me and Charlie [Haden] and we had the trio, we got together and rehearsed. He had an apartment down in the Lower East Side, and we'd rehearse there. When he'd come up with new music, he'd call rehearsals. We had rehearsals here in my apartment and also out at his place in New Jersey. But that was before; now, I really don't like to do it. People call me to record and that's the first thing I tell them: "I'm not rehearsing.

AAJ: At this point, you can lay down your conditions.

PM: Well, yeah. Also, I kind of like the idea of playing new music for the first time, even in a recording session. It seems like if I rehearse it and play it over and over, it doesn't get good anymore. The best thing is the surprise of the new music and to try to find things to play with that music to make it good. If I keep rehearsing it, it's not going to happen.

AAJ: It drains the life out of it.

PM: Unless it's a big band and it has drum charts and they want you to do certain things at certain times. That's a different story. But the music that I'm involved with is not like that.

AAJ: There's plenty of the kind of music people might associate with you on I Have the Room Above Her—atmospheric, nocturnal stuff like "Osmosis or "Shadows. But "Dance is just plain up-tempo—that one does sound a bit like Ornette to me, by the way.

PM: I wrote that one quite a while ago. I like that one; I play it a lot and have recorded it quite a bit. You know, there's another band that I'm involved with called Trio 2000 + One [with bassists Steve Swallow and/or Larry Grenadier, pianist Masabumi Kikushi and saxman Chris Potter] and we do that tune too. Actually, you know Dizzy Gillespie's big-band recording of "Things to Come? I've been thinking about doing that. So it's about different things; I don't want to keep doing records that sound like the last record. I'm about to do some recording and I want to do different things.

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