Paul Motian, 1931 – 2011

I have a really clear memory of dropping in on a trio set with Paul Bley, Gary Peacock and Paul Motian while passing through New York when I was 17 or so. It was Motian who struck me the most: on one tune — and I can see this clearly in my mind 12 years later — all he played was his ride cymbal. After the tune ended, a guy in front of me leaned in towards his date and said: “only Paul Motian could pull that off”, and that was really my first clear realization of that most mysterious element of music, the ability that great musicians have to infuse the tiniest thing — a single cymbal hit, for example — with layers of meaning. How is that even possible? It’s just a cymbal hit, after all. But Paul was staring so hard at the cymbal, and his concentration was clearly so intense, that somehow it didn’t sound like a cymbal but like some kind of personal expression, like a smile, a raised eyebrow or a laugh. Paul was one of the rare players who never sound like they’re playing notes — it goes straight past craft into expression, past “music” (in the non-transcendent sense) into “art”.

How Paul did that I have no idea, but he must be one of the all-time masters of that brand of magic. After I moved to New York, in 2006, he was probably the musician that I went to hear the most, and he never disappointed. Most of the time he played incredibly beautifully (always in his singular, faux-naïf way), then occasionally he seemed not to be enjoying the gig and it got really interesting: it looked and sounded to me like he would choose to express his frustration in music instead of keeping it inside, allowing himself at these times to play loudly and at first glance anti-musically. Except it was always musical: in fact I saw several examples of his approach turning a set that was sagging into something genuinely riveting, as it awakened everybody onstage and put them into some kind of heightened combat mode. Sometimes the other players refused to be awakened, but Paul charged on regardless. He always seemed to be asking: how can we make some compelling music out of this situation? There’s no doubt that he was acutely aware that the greatest sin in art is boredom. Vitality was always at the forefront, and surrender to blandness just wasn’t an option. He would go down swinging.

I always thought of Paul as a master of casting: his bands seemed, to me, to be put together the way a director chooses actors for a movie: the goal wasn’t just to get the best musicians, but to gather a complete array of characters that would contrast and bring unexpected things out of each other. Like a movie: if you have a hero, you need a villain; if you have a class nerd, you need a class clown. Once he put a band together for a week at the Vanguard that included a young musician who in the ears of some listeners wasn’t pulling his weight. Asked why he had hired him, Paul said: “he sounds so bad, he makes me sound great!” Not many people in jazz think along these lines — the drama that comes from the internal dynamic of the band, the interactions of its various characters. It reminds me of Miles telling Dave Liebman, as he asked why he was in the band, that the “audience liked to see him move his fingers fast”. Paul was always aiming for something that was greater than the sum of its parts.

I got to play with Paul on two occasions: a quartet week with Lee Konitz at Birdland in July 2009, and a duo night at Cornelia Street Cafe in February 2011. Paul even called me this summer to ask if I could do a trio week at the Vanguard, but it’s one of the tragedies of my musical life that this — my dream gig — isn’t going to happen now. I am deeply grateful, though, for the duo night at Cornelia St, easily one of the musical highlights of my life so far.

I approached the gig with no expectations, knowing that if Paul wasn’t digging the music, he wouldn’t pretend otherwise. We played a couple Monk tunes and a couple standards, but mostly we played free. Paul was clear that the music shouldn’t be recorded, and I complied. A few months later, though, a friend surprised me with a bootleg she had made from the audience. I’m very glad to have this now, because it’s a reminder that Paul — and this is something I’ll always be proud of — dug the music. He was generous, giving, incredibly attentive, committed to making music together. I was suddenly struck by the miraculous nature of Paul’s time. There’s no other way to describe it. It was perfect — accurate, constant, deeply grooving — and profoundly flexible at the same time. It was immediately something that you could trust, a bedrock. Somehow this fact — the exquisiteness of Paul’s sense of time — had slipped me by until then, perhaps because the duo format, with its inherent fragility, the tightrope walk of two instruments without a third as consensus-builder, leaves so much open space that you have to notice these things. Or maybe I just wasn’t ready to really appreciate it before.

A couple weeks after our duo gig, I went to hear Paul at the Vanguard. After the set, he said “hey, that was a fun gig! We should do it again sometime”, and I couldn’t believe my luck. That’s the thing with people who speak their mind: when they say something nice, you know it actually means something. I only wish we had had the time to actually do it again — like everyone else, I was shocked to see him go. He really seemed like he would go on forever.

From the week at Birdland with Lee, I remember being struck by Paul’s endings. It was like that Nietzsche quote: “Masters of the first rank are revealed by the fact that in great as well as small matters they know how to end perfectly, whether it is a matter of ending a melody or a thought”. His endings just happened, often unexpected and always just right.

One thing I noticed about Paul is that you could bring just about anyone to a gig of his, including self-proclaimed jazz haters, and they would love him. I experienced this 4 or 5 times. There was something obviously universal about him, like Monk, that people — almost everyone — couldn’t help responding to. The phrase “I don’t usually like drummers, but he’s amazing!” kept coming back. If you’re talking about pure music, he was it.

In the end, when I think of Paul, the first word that comes to me is ‘truth’. In his way of playing music, and generally in his way of being, with pretending not ever being an option, he exemplified truth. I think that’s why people couldn’t help loving him: truth cuts across all cultures and religions; we know it when we see it. To see such a consistent source of truth disappear from the world is hard to bear.

The second word that comes to me is “badass”. Damn that guy was cool!

Gary Peacock said a couple things about Paul when we were playing together this summer. “He just takes the sticks and plays” was the first thing, which is pretty fitting coming from the devoted Zen practitioner that Gary is: there just didn’t seem to be anything in the way between Paul and the music, or life for that matter. He exemplified the “eat when you’re hungry, sleep when you’re tired” ethos of Zen.

Then Gary told a story. Towards the end of a tour that he and Paul were doing with Bill Evans in the Trio 64 era, Paul went up to Bill one night and told him that he would be leaving the next day. Bill said: “but Paul, we still have three nights left in the tour!” Paul answered that he understood, but that he really had to go to New York to play with Paul Bley — that that was the music he felt he needed to play. And here’s the amazing thing: according to Gary, Paul was so honest and straightforward, that very soon Evans was coming around to his side. Only Paul could make an abrupt breakup come across as something other than a betrayal. It was just what he had to do, and that was that. It’s hard to fight the truth.

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Content, form, and weirdness

I’m a longtime fan of Pedro Almódovar — it’s hard not to be if you grew up in France — so I couldn’t wait to see his latest film, The Skin I Live In. I saw it last night and there’s really only one word that immediately comes to mind: W•E•I•R•D.

It’s probably the strangest movie I’ve ever seen. Its weirdness is profoundly disturbing because it’s presented in a non-weird package, with Almodóvar’s trademark gorgeous composition and vibrant colors. I’m a fan of strange movies — David Lynch’s Lost Highway was one of my faves as a teenager — but on the weirdness scale, this one takes the cake by a long shot. Usually, the strangeness of a movie is reflected in its form. Black Swan, for example, has all kinds of strange things going on in the presentation that make it clear that you, the viewer, should take everything that you see onscreen with a grain of salt: the form of the film actively reminds you that the story isn’t necessarily real.

In The Skin, the weirdness is pretty much entirely constrained to the subject matter — it’s the story that’s profoundly strange. There’s a little temporal confusion in the middle of the film — it’s unclear whether a flashback actually occurred or whether it’s part of Antonio Banderas’ dream — but that question quickly gets resolved. The film is essentially a straightforward storytelling of a very strange story.

What is this thing, ‘weirdness’, anyway? I suppose the word could describe anything that is disturbing in an unexpected way. A photo of a mass grave in a civil war zone published in a newspaper is disturbing, but it fits into what we know about reality and hence isn’t weird; conversely, most comedy plays on our expectations, and it’s what’s unexpected that’s funny to us, but unless a comic is purposely going for something disturbing (Sarah Silverman?), we usually wouldn’t describe it as weird. But even Silverman isn’t that weird, really, because her comedy fits into a category of cringe humor that we’ve come to expect.

At some level, it’s like the Charles Peguy line, “Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics”, which essentially tells us that you can only be mysterious for a short time — very quickly, the mystery gets dissected and broken down, codified, and soon enough people with power (politics) are arguing about how it “should” be.

It’s the same with weirdness: you only get to be truly weird the first time. In this sense, weirdness is closely connected to newness. Only the new can be mysterious, and only the new can be weird. So it’s really a huge accomplishment when an artist can create a profound, sustained sense of weirdness in a viewer. It’s an exciting feeling, because it means we’re discovering something for the first time.

So The Skin has weird content but a non-weird form. This made me think of one of the classic Luis Buñuel movies, That Obscure Object of Desire, which in many ways is the opposite: straightforward content and fundamentally strange form. It’s a fairly simple story of a frustrated love affair, but the woman being courted by the protagonist is played by two different actresses, who look nothing alike, their scenes mixed seemingly at random as the film goes on. In this case the strangeness of the form ends up giving the whole film an unforgettable eeriness that perfectly expresses the protagonist’s frustration at not being able to get any kind of grip on the girl — clearly, he doesn’t even know who she is. You come out of the film feeling like this simple story has been given transcendence by the form; it almost feels like the form has worked its magic in a subliminal way.

In The Skin I Live In, you come out of the film feeling that the simple form has made the content feel even weirder. So there may be a kind of a hierarchy here: it’s more palatable to present something straightforward in a strange way than to present something strange in a straightforward way.

Whenever I think about art in any kind of way, I end up asking myself what it means for music. The issue here is complicated by the fact that it’s hard to separate form and content in music (at least with music that doesn’t have lyrics). With most instrumental music, the question “what is this about?” is really hard to answer. The emotional center of a piece — a description of which would probably be the best answer to the question — often emerges as a result of the form. But I will say this: if, when you’re playing an out-there version of a standard, we can say that we’re “talking about the standard, but in a weird way” (which I think makes sense), then if we want to “talk about something weird, but in a standard way” we might be playing a super-dissonant and metrically obscure composition in the style of, say, a polka, no?

And yet for something to strike us as profoundly strange, the way The Skin I live In does, it’s got to be really close to home — to deal with everyday situations and twist them. It’s our attachment to these everyday situations that makes us so sensitive to the twist. In music, it’s harder to say what these everyday situations would be. Clearly we can take elements that have become staples of music — the tempered scale, for example — and turn them on their head — making microtonal music, e.g., but it’s really hard, in music, to summon the disturbing feeling we get when we’re confronted with something that really challenges our morals. Or maybe I’m saying this because I’m so used to strange music — perhaps the people who first heard The Rite of Spring in Paris really were personally weirded out by it? I don’t have any answers here, just a question: what would it mean to make music that feels just as weird as The Skin I Live In? Is it even possible?

Without giving too much away, The Skin makes you think about issues of gender and identity in ways that will most likely be new to you. And in a way, even though it deals with gender at a fundamental level, it’s mostly about identity: the tension of the ending hangs on whether or not one of the main characters has retained the core of her identity or whether she has allowed herself to be made into something else. The ending reminded me of the denouement of Casablanca, where the tension comes from our trying to figure out whether the chief of police is a good or bad guy — first he acts like a bad guy, then a good guy, and we’re relieved. Almodovar takes this one step further: it’s not so much about being a good or bad guy, and more about being true to yourself. After going through so much, do you still know who you are?

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All I Heard Was Nothing?

Sometimes nothing is a lot to hear. And other times you hear a lot, but it adds up to nothing. You know what I mean?

At any rate, here I am, blogging. Or so it would seem.

Stay tuned.

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