By Anat Fort
Confusing place, New York City. I may be planning on an early night (you know, going to bed around 12-1 am) when I get an email from a burning group that's playing somewhere. Soon enough, my phone rings and it's a friend, going to see this "really amazing band, you got to come check them out while their shows are still $10". And, as if that is not enough, I will just be browsing the paper while realizing five or six more "real happening shows" are going on. Or more. Urgh!! It is so hard living here, sometimes. And yet, nothing compares. We are all drawn here because of it. And because everybody is here, everybody else wants to come and join those who are here already.
The result, as many of you know, is an incredible amount of talented people, and not enough venues to play in. Musicians get treated like dirt because there are simply so many good ones and we all want to play. Many of us come here fully driven and motivated to "make it". And gradually, after many years of what we consider disappointments, we lose our self-confidence, hope and trust. Not to mention (especially if we happen to be bandleaders) money.
It seems like in the "old" days things were different. For one thing, there were not so many of us. And those who were seem to have been more connected, more together somehow. Musicians were out every night listening to each other play, finding situations to come together and support, sit in and jam. And the older ones would get out there and seek young blood, the new names on the scene and, if they liked them, helped pave the youngsters' ways through some of the hassles that the wonderful jazz world has to offer. That was how the music naturally grew and developed, not only here but in the rest of the world as well. Some of it is still happening today. But it seems to me like there are so many beautiful players around and yet a lot of us stay "stuck" at a certain level. And I am not talking about the level of playing. What I am talking about is the common assumption that "if there is something good out there, it is not for me/it will find me somehow" (depending on how we feel about ourselves at that moment). Well, that may be true, but it certainly does not diminish the greatest responsibility we, as artists, have: getting ourselves out there and saying what needs to be said. And at some point, it is not only about practicing anymore. The real work becomes seeking opportunities, creating situations and finding the right people who can help us help ourselves.
Growing up on Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett and the like I have always dreamt of playing with longtime associate of both pianists - drummer Paul Motian. It was not long after I met bassist Ed Schuller that I asked him how this kind of thing could possibly be arranged. Would Paul even consider doing a record with someone he knows nothing about, based on Ed's recommendation? Would I have to send him some music of mine and pray that he liked it? Am I asking too much and should I just forget the whole thing? Well, Ed made it sound like if Paul agreed to the basic idea of it (knowing absolutely nothing about me or my music) and basically depending on his mood at the moment, it might just happen. And I got lucky...Paul agreed. At that point it became "just" a question of affording him and putting the project together, which took a lot of work and effort. But a couple of years later I was ready.
Going into the studio with one of my idols was an unbelievable experience. And yet, I could not let myself go there while playing with him. By "there" I mean that place of freaking out because you are playing your own music with your dream drummer of so many years. But there was no need in freaking out playing with Paul. He really enjoyed the music and the playing and was simply, and in the most casual and natural way, into it. Making a record of all original (and sometimes very difficult) music without ever rehearsing...can you imagine? We spent two days recording, and toward the end I told Paul I wanted to record a couple of standard tunes, which I very rarely play. My thought was more commercial than artistic but Paul recognized it immediately. "I won't do it, man", he says. "Your music and this project are complete. Now just go and get it out there, you don't need anything else"...
But I did need something else, and without asking Paul directly to do it - he did. After the CD was recorded I was getting ready to shop it around, hopefully find an interested label and, if need be, put it out myself. But thanks to Paul I did not have to. Two weeks after we did the recording he called to let me know he contacted ECM records, my dream record label, and that they were interested in hearing it. Two months later it was a wrap - they decided to release it. In one phone call Paul has changed the entire course of this recording and, consequently, of my career.
Whenever I go to hear Paul play now (and I do quite a bit...) I thank him for it. He always dismisses it: "I didn't do anything, man. It's a good record, that's all". But he did do something, and a very significant thing. While I created the situation of playing and recording with him that was, essentially, a dream come true - Paul initiated one little thing. He talked about it to the people he thought would be interested out of his own sheer enthusiasm about the project. He really, truly cares about what is new out there and he is interested in helping it be heard. And I believe he understands that by helping musicians he believes in to be heard, he really helps the MUSIC to thrive. He knows that is the natural course of evolution...and he is still, at 73 years of age, out there, doing it, making sure the right music finds the right ears because that is the only way to keep it growing.
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