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Paul Motian: There's a Million Songs Out There

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[This is an encore presentation of Paul Motian's April 2006 interview with All About Jazz.]

Paul Motian doesn't like being interviewed.

That said, the 75-year-old drummer has plenty to say, and doesn't hesitate to speak his mind. Motian first came to prominence in the late 1950s as one-third (with bassist Scott LaFaro and pianist Bill Evans) of the great Bill Evans Trio, which upended expectations of just what a jazz piano trio was supposed to do (at this point, however, he had already gigged with Thelonious Monk, Lennie Tristano and George Russell). He's played throughout the last four decades with an astonishing list of creative players such as Keith Jarrett, Paul Bley, Carla Bley, and Charlie Haden. His own work as a bandleader is of a remarkably high quality and variety—albums like Dance and Tribute continue to inspire musicians to this day.

Motian's done more than any other drummer to change the conception and role of drumming in the jazz framework; his playing is often described as "abstract or "painterly —that said, he's more than capable of swinging mercilessly when he cares to. Although he did not write music for many years, he's now as well known as a composer as a player. Motian's trio with guitarist Bill Frisell and saxman Joe Lovano is one of his longstanding groups and the band's CD I Have the Room Above Her was a ubiquitous presence on just about every jazz publication's best-of-2005 list. The Paul Motian Band—formerly known as the Paul Motian Electric Bebop Band—is another of the bandleader's continuous projects, and their new CD Garden of Eden stands up with the very best Motian albums. I spoke with Paul Motian recently about the new Motian Band recording, the Paul Motian Trio, why he isn't touring anymore, the horrors of being interviewed, and plenty more.

All About Jazz: Let's talk about the new Garden of Eden CD by the Paul Motian Band, which was formerly known as the Paul Motian Electric Bebop Band. This band's been around in one form or another for some time now.

Paul Motian: Yeah, maybe twenty years.

AAJ: This was put together as your attempt to "destroy bebop.

PM: Well, to sort of parody it. I don't think I wanted it destroyed. I just wanted to see if I could get some young people that really didn't know it to play it and see what would happen.

AAJ: Any philosophy behind the band's name change?

PM: Well, I'm playing more of my songs. It started out originally as us just playing bebop. I'm not doing that anymore; I'm playing mostly my own music. So that's the reason. But I might change it back again—I don't know. I might go out one night and play only bebop and call it the Electric Bebop Band.

AAJ: Some of the musicians have been in this group for a while: guitarists Steve Cardenas and Ben Monder and tenor players Chris Cheek, Tony Malaby. There are some new players—guitarist Jakob Bro and bassist Jerome Harris.

PM: And [tenor player] Mark Turner. The last gig we had, we played at the Vanguard for a week and Tony Malaby only played the first night. Mark Turner finished the week.

AAJ: Is that a permanent change?

PM: Well, for the moment. Yeah. Usually, what I do is the last people who play in the band are the people I call for the next gig—if they're available. It's not a band that's working every week, so whenever we work, whoever can do it, I appreciate it.

AAJ: The change on this particular CD is—besides that's it's more about your compositions—that there are, on about half of it, not two but three guitarists. Ben's on some of the tunes, not all. You've always had an affinity for guitar; you played yourself once upon a time.

PM: Well, I started out with it but I didn't get very far [laughing].

AAJ: Well, your record Tribute, from 1974, has two guitarists on it. So you've worked in that configuration. But three guitarists is a whole different thing, and with some groups, it would just be a huge mess. But here, it's fantastic. Tell me what motivated this three-guitar thing, and while you're at it, tell me how you discovered Jakob Bro.

PM: Well, Jakob Bro is from Copenhagen. I did a couple European tours and Ben Monder couldn't do it. So Jakob did it. Also at that time, there was a bassist, from Copenhagen also, named Anders Christensen, who did a couple of records with me. So when Jakob did those tours, I wanted to have him in the band—and when Ben came back, I just wanted Jakob too. So I kept the three guitars, and it's been working out great. Nobody gets in each other's way; everyone seems to know what to do and the blend is really nice. I like it a lot.

AAJ: I like it too. It sounds good.

PM: It's really good. And Jakob is really talented. He's young, but he did a nice record of his own and he sent it to me. It's really nice; it's really different. I guess he used computers a lot, but there are three different saxophones on different tracks. Chris Cheek is on some of it, Mark Turner's on some, Chris Speed's on some of it. It's nice—really different, man. And he put it out because he had someone that gave him some money to put it out. He's not getting any distribution—the only place you can get it is in Copenhagen. But he got a couple of awards. He's good. I like him a lot. When we played at the Vanguard the time before last, we usually played about seven or eight songs in a set—which is about an hour-and-ten, hour-and-fifteen minutes. This last time we played, there were more like fourteen songs in a set. Which means we're playing the songs shorter, and there's not as many individual solos. It's more like a collective thing, kind of an environmental sound, and I like it a lot. It gives me a chance to play with that sound, play what I feel and hear with that sound. It's been working out.

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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