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Paul Motian: New York, NY, May 20 2011

Warren Allen BY

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Paul Motian Quartet "Tribute to the MJQ"
Village Vanguard
New York, NY
May 20, 2011

The boundary between past and present in jazz has, over the years, become a source of overwrought debate. The rise of "Tribute" shows at New York City's big name clubs gives ammunition to those who say that jazz today looks too much to its past at the expense of its future. But good musicians make good music, regardless of how it's advertised, and the great Paul Motian's weeklong tribute to the Modern Jazz Quartet at the Vanguard showed that paying tribute should not be a constraint on creativity. This was a display that grounded its music in great songs and great players, without obscuring the individuality of either.

Motian has shown little fear in tackling the music of the legendary jazz players, and the band he assembled showed that same poise and comfort. His MJQ featured three fascinating choices to hold down the chairs of Milt Jackson, Percy Heath, and John Lewis (Kenny Clarke and Connie Kay played drums over the life of the band). Veteran Steve Nelson held down the vibes, and had Motian smiling every time he stepped to the plate. All night long, he unleashed dizzying solo after solo, and added little percussive hits and bell-like sustained chords to shape the music on its way. Bassist Thomas Morgan, though young, has flexed his considerable chops with greats including John Abercrombie and David Binney. His playing tickled at the subconscious, easy to overlook at times yet gently shaping the music with a distinct and subtle voice that made him a fine sparring partner for Motian.

Finally, pianist Craig Taborn was a fascinating choice in holding down John Lewis' chair. As a bold player in the avant-garde idiom, what sets Taborn apart within his generation of pianists is the tremendous control he has over dynamics and communication, even within a storm of his own making. At times during the night's more straight-ahead offerings, he played almost too softly—forcing the audience to listen hard. His comping behind Nelson's vibe work was sparse but deeply creative, as it built a dialogue from the intricate vibe statements with the slightest inventions of his right hand.

At the same time, his solos showed the capacity to overwhelm. One of Motian's freer melodies allowed him to completely cut loose, with fingers moving at synapse tempo. He ground out impossible swells of sound that still held clear, distinct ideas drifting between his hands as they kneaded the atonality to form. With the bandleader deluging him with crashing cymbal, the music reached a dizzying intensity. Yet on the next song, a rendition of "Sunday in the Park with George," he was both understated and energetic, with a virtuoso statement that forged new harmonic territory in the tune's upbeat style.

The set was filled with other beautiful themes by the MJQ, as well as two of Motian's own now-standard compositions. These little breaks kept the night moving by injecting some freedom for the quartet to stretch out within intense songs like the closing "Drum Music," compared to more traditional melodies like the sparse "Wednesday" and a soulful "Delauney's Dilemma." A real highlight, too, was the opening "Django," perhaps the MJQ's most famous standard. Taborn took the slow, mournful head, and the bass provided heavy accents on the downbeat, before the tune rose to its easy Gypsy swing, and Nelson warmed the vibes with a solo of graceful, looping runs and sharp anvil shots. Meanwhile, the bandleader's elegant brushwork made his cymbals crack and shudder like an early summer thunderstorm.

Motian seemed in a good mood throughout the night, in his standard shades and silver New Balance sneakers. He gave Nelson some grief over a few missed notes in the melody, conversed with Lorraine Gordon at her corner seat near the entrance to the Vanguard kitchen, and even exchanged pleasantries with a few grateful fans after the show. And, of course, he was on throughout the set, not soloing much, but driving the others on in his sparse and distinctive style.

The reality is that jazz has precious few of its legends left, and any chance to hear Motian at the Vanguard or anywhere else is a blessing. But it's particularly rewarding to hear the energy that he still brings, at 80 years young, to his own music and the music of others. The classic MJQ had the skill to mold powerful melodies out of easy swing while keeping the material fresh, and this quartet found the same uncompromising blend of accessibility and innovation. Motian's select quartet of highly distinct players found common ground within these tunes, and in that way paid their own personal tribute to that spirit of modern Jazz.

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