Thursday, December 1, 2011

What I Learned from Paul Motian

Paul Motian at his favorite spot - the Village Vanguard
In the weeks since jazz drummer Paul Motian's death on November 22, the response from the online music community has been large, warm and beautiful. On the day of his passing, Motian was trending on twitter in New York. Peter Hum of the Ottawa Citizen compiled a comprehensive list of remembrances by fellow musicians. Photographer John Rogers revealed Motian's generous spirit off the bandstand in a moving piece at NPR's A Blog Supreme. Nate Chinen's New York Times playlist this weekend features all new music that calls Motian to mind. And today, Ethan Iverson has blessed his readers with his own critical-personal appreciation.

So what does that leave me to say you ask?

Well just that delving into Paul Motian's music my freshman year fundamentally altered how I think about and play the drums.

You see, up until about December 2008, I was a Drummer. Yes, capital D Drummer. My first drumming inspiration was Buddy Rich. My first instructional video was Dave Weckl's "Back to Basics" (or, look at that hair!). I was obsessed with technique, spending many hours trying to master the mysterious "secret weapons" of drumming, like the Moeller whip and the push-pull. Speed was the name of the game. My technique intoxication was sort of the drumming equivalent of "chicks dig the longball." And when I entered college, let's just say I thought I had some real pop in my sticks.

I got some real wake-up calls during my first semester of big band rehearsals. I was able to play blazing single stroke rolls around the kit, and so filled up every little space I could with them. Listening back to recordings of myself from that autumn, my drumming sounds leaden and artless (let's not even talk about my time-feel issues). But I couldn't hear that at the time, so when my director told me to dial down the density, I got both angry (why is he getting in my way) and terribly nervous (what is it that I'm doing wrong). My instincts for fixing my problems brought me back to those technique videos and method books, thinking that I just needed more control. Didn't Dave Weckl and Buddy Rich play super dense all the time? Why couldn't I?

In the end, it wasn't more chops that I needed. It was bigger ears and a new aesthetic. No more Drummer with a capital D. No more secret weapons. Just doing a helluva lot more with a lot less.

Luckily I had gotten friendly with a junior trumpet player in the band named Harrison. Harrison convinced me to check out my first-ever Free Jazz show, and then started giving me CD recommendations. First: ditch all that Brad Mehldau and Aaron Parks moody piano stuff. Second: DAVE DOUGLAS! Third: did you know that Paul Motian has a ton of sick solo albums?

I certainly knew who Motian was at that time. I had all the classic Bill Evans recordings from the late '50s and early '60s and had eaten them up when I was learning jazz piano in high school. There was a nice big picture of him in my favorite method book, John Riley's Beyond Bop Drumming. I even had his Bill Evans tribute album, with Bill Frisell, Marc Johnson, and Joe Lovano. Can't say I had listened to it much though. It didn't have all those purdy piano lines that I liked in the Evans originals.

Anyway, I took Harrison's advice and on the afternoon of December 2, 2008, I checked out three Motian CDs from the music library on campus - the Electric Bebop Band playing Monk and Powell, On Broadway vol. 1, and Story of Maryam. I surreptitiously uploaded them onto my computer that night.

Story of Maryam was first on my listening list, due to its 4 1/2-star rating, plus editor's pick, on All Music Guide (this was before I had musical opinions, ok?). I finally got around to it that Saturday afternoon, December 6. It was one of the cold, dry December days, the ones of chapped lips and hoodies worn indoors. I put on the album to accompany my Religion class reading.

I then stopped my Religion class reading.

The opening track "9x9" shot out of my headphones in a blaze of dual saxophones, shrouded by clouds of distorted guitar, and churned about by the stuttering rumble of shadowy drums and the sky-streaking clash of laser-bright cymbals. The music was deeply mysterious, but not incomprehensible. There was a folkish simplicity to the melody, though abstracted by the free-floating tempo. The rest of the album continued in this mode, bringing me into a reverie of early winters in New England. Which is saying something because I've never experienced them before.

What shocked me so much about Story of Maryam was how the first regular, insistent groove only arrived 5 minutes from the end of the record. I had just began to experiment with free-tempo playing with Harrison and thought it was just about playing whatever you wanted at any time. Naturally, I found listening to our stuff a bit boring and saw this free-time thing as a brief contrast to more groove-oriented sections. Motian's playing totally changed my preconceptions. Even without regular tempos, the album was full of momentum and expressive contrast. While Motian's playing on "9x9" was aggressively defined, his playing on the ensuing ballad "5 Miles to Wrentham" was spacious and intently patient, drawing attention to the subtlest shadings on his cymbals. Whatever the mood of the piece, Motian's drumming was totally efficient, which is surprising considering how loose it was. The strokes were seemingly random, but by the end, I could tell that they were meticulously placed.

Meticulous chaos: that's what I learned from Motian that winter, and it's just what I needed to hear at that time.

As I continued to eat up Motian's discography, I began to incorporate his approach into my playing. I cut down on snare drum chatter, started using fatter sticks, tried to strip down each performance to its bare essentials. After 3 years of this (and the addition of 14 more hours of his music on my hard drive), my drumming is fundamentally changed, yet still far removed from Motian's mysterious meticulousness and sound-so-distinctive-you-can-recognize-him-with-one-stroke.

Motian's influence on me probably comes through most clearly on a piece and I wrote and recorded this past spring called "Illyria Suite." The opening and concluding sections feature pointillistic, free-time drumming over a folkish tune. Ok, my drum & cymbal sounds are totally different than his, and the piece heads to some very un-Motian places in the middle, but I would not have even been able to conceptually imagine a piece like this before hearing Motian's music.

[Go listen to "Illyria Suite" here!]

Even after his passing, Motian will never cease to inspire my playing. There are always more layers to peal away from each performance. I'm now going to check back on Song of Maryam and see what else I can dig out tonight.

See you over the rainbow, Paul.

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